Tim Crouch’s play ‘An Oak Tree’ uses the idea of suggestion, belief and how we find out the answers to questions, to explore the idea of grief. Here translated into Welsh by Invertigo (translation by Mared Llewelyn Williams) it becomes ‘Derwen’. The play is known for the fact that one of the two actors on stage has never seen the script before. The other, ‘The Hypnotist’ guides them through with verbal instructions, and script in hand moments. The set up: the Hypnotist accidentally killed the daughter of the other character ‘Andy’. And Andy has come to his show, seeking answers.
It’s a fascinating pretext, at once playing with our expectations and preconceptions of theatre and confronting us with them. We’re never left in any doubt that this is performance, it’s self-referential, the actor- particularly the unrehearsed one- is continually shows to be ‘in performance’ but still we believe they are the father. They transform and yet they don’t, precisely demonstrating Crouch’s idea of suggestion, and indeed belief.
The translation to Welsh, and particularly a subtitled performance, adds to this somewhat. The staging that emphasises the artifice of theatre, the performative element of what we’re seeing, is added to by rolling subtitles behind. For those with a knowledge of Welsh as well, the minor linguistic phrasing differences also add to this world of ‘what we are told, what is happening, what we believe.’
But all the theatrical experimentation, although valid in its own right, here serves a narrative and a wider purpose. Derwen is a play about grief, and how we deal with but first of all seek, our answers. The idea of hypnosis conjures images of these answers of course always being inside us- the Hypnotist can only suggest after all, everything else must come from the person being hypnotised. Crouch’s writing takes us then through both the mind of the Hypnotist and Andy as we see they are both seeking to unravel what happened the evening of the accident. The Hypnotist keeps saying he’s lost his ability since then, and it becomes clear that the hypnosis, this night of what he views as one of his last performances is as much for unravelling his grief as it is Andy’s.
Steffan Donnelly is such an engaging, likeable actor that he brings an immediate charm to that of the Hypnotist. Early in the play he tells the second actor not to worry because ‘they’ (the audience) will all be after him anyway. But as much as the Hypnotist is strange, as much as we are told over and over- by him- that he’s done something terrible, Donnelly brings to him a warmth and vulnerability that really pulls an audience into his story. What Donnelly does logistically, on top of the performance makes the performance he delivers all the more impressive.
The Hypnotist is also as a performer makes the whole ‘show’ run in every sense. So, Donnelly runs the set-up, bringing in the unrehearsed performer, explaining the set up to the audience and them, and running the logistics of putting that performer in the show. This involves switching between his own performance- even though much of it is done ‘in character’ to feeding lines, moving the actor around the space and of course making sure their performance runs smoothly. Much of it shifts into ‘meta’ territory including a scripted pause where the two of them reflect on the show so far. But as scripted as it all is, pause really should be given to the logistics of keeping the show, and unrehearsed actor running, while also delivering a moving performance. And it is moving, we see him unravelling while controlling the show-within-the-play, and as an actor controlling the play. It’s clever writing and clever performance. But the moments it stops being conscious show the cracks, and that’s the power in Crouch’s writing, and Donnelly’s performance.
This performance’s unrehearsed actor was Sian Reese Williams. Clearly not the unshaven 6ft 2in Andy as the script described. Yet from the first moment she was- and of course wasn’t. That’s the beauty of Crouch’s writing, and the way Donnelly guides her through the performance, she is at once changed, and becomes the grieving father, but we also continually are conscious she’s an actor making her way through unfamiliar text. For an audience, as much as an actor that’s an exhilarating experience, because we’re constantly reminded we’re discovering this too, it stops the passivity of watching a play and engages, as we will the performer on, but also long to discover the next step with her. Reese Williams performed brilliantly- balancing humour with a moving and engaged performance. The ability to connect so quickly with the material is one that’s to be commended, and to find a good balance of chemistry with Donnelly- vital for the piece to work.
Derwen works beautifully on two levels- it’s an intellectual theatrical exercise that’s fascinating to watch, but also a genuinely moving piece of storytelling. Crouch’s writing proves that it’s possible to be theatrically innovative, challenge your audience’s perceptions, but also create something entertaining and indeed moving. In this production, and in presenting it in translation, Invertigo prove the enduring power of the piece and the questions it asks. The answers for which, might well also lie with ourselves.