Tim Crouch - Art Transplant

Bored of theatre? Had enough psychological realism to drown an episode of EastEnders? Dylan Reed speaks to Tim Crouch about his new play, 'England' – set to change the standard (again) and win you back for drama

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 4 minutes
Published 05 Aug 2007
England. A play called England. Turn over the name in your head and alternative plays of your own should start to emerge. With all of its historical and literary baggage, such a simple name is one hell of a prelude for drama.

When I meet Tim Crouch, the man behind the controversially titled Traverse commission, it becomes clear that such boldness abounds in his personality. Tall and handsome, with a confidence stemming from earlier thespian years, Crouch appears fearless. But in Princes Street gardens, shortly before his opening night performance, I discover a surprising modesty beneath his hard outer shell.

“I was shitting myself over the decision to call it England. I’m aware that giving a play that name is provocative – incredibly provocative in that we’re launching it in Scotland. But that’s the nature of the piece: it’s about one thing being placed inside another. The narrative of the piece is about a heart transplant.”

That's not to say the play is a simply a donor story: the transplant narrative continues right down to the mechanics of staging the piece, and it is clear that the decision to premier the drama in a space for the plastic arts – Edinburgh's Fruitmarket gallery – has been taken with the Scottish location of England in mind:

“The ideas behind the piece are those of transplantation; there is a theme of one country being placed inside another, and one art form being placed in a space designed for a different art form, one heart being placed in another person’s body, and one culture being placed in another culture. So although we had lots of ideas for titles, I’m afraid this one stuck.”

Crouch’s ability to construct pointed analysis of his working process is exceptional. An hour in his company reveals that he possesses an extraordinary neatness of mind. Not ‘neat’ in the sense of tidy and uncreative, but neatness as sophistication and fun. Crouch’s neatness is his ability to combine many complicated ideas into one simple and entertaining play. So, continuing where he left off in An Oak Tree, England sees Crouch furthering his exploration of the generic distinctions we take for granted in drama, in particular the assumed correlation between character and actor. The production handles this superbly: Crouch and his co-star, Hannah Ringham, play the same character, and share a script from which they must each select lines – an ad-libbed form of scripting. In doing so, Crouch forces the genre to echo his theme of transplant: parts of bodies are displaced, just as the single character in the play is displaced across two actors.

But it’s not all about layers of meaning and transplantations of themes. Somewhat reassuringly, Crouch claims that infused into the complex structure of England is “an inherent satisfaction in story.” He tells me that his normal creative approach is to “follow the line of the story.” He continues, “it’s only after it has been written that I start to work out what the fuck it means.”

While keeping tight-lipped about details, Crouch’s claims that his creation is deliberately enigmatic, arguing that the pleasure in watching a play comes from working it out. It has become somewhat of a cliché to praise ambiguous endings but those new to Crouch can expect to have their preconceptions altered by the paradoxical end of England.

In this way England sits snugly, but not inconspicuously in Crouch's ouvre: his previous works My Arm and The Oak Tree demonstrated his interest in visual art and his commitment to experimental theatre; England represents his continued investigations into these alternative formats. Signalling a new influence on his writing, he frequently refers to the Fruitmarket gallery and the works of exhibiting artist Alex Hartley: “It’s very important for the audience to know where they are. We don’t try to dupe them into thinking they’re somewhere else.”

“But then, we kind of do… The first act is a ‘world tour’: a world tour of art, a world tour of health. In the second act the audience are four thousand miles away from here, in a hotel room, and they are playing the wife of a man whose heart has been taken out and given to the main protagonist.”

“But then…” is the clue. Crouch’s quick, humorous turn of phrase is just one more sign of his neatness, the underlying order that regulates the chaos. For those who like their theatre instinctive, playful, confident and questioning, England is your Fringe destination.