This article is from 2007.

Art of the matter

Tim Crouch tells Mark Fisher that England is about many things, but they don’t include warm beer and nostalgia

Such is the quest for novelty on the Fringe that you end up taking for granted shows that would sound astonishing anywhere else. A performance in the toilets? How very 2003. A Bouncy Castle Macbeth? Surely no competition for the bouncy castle Richard III in 1998 or indeed last year’s Bouncy Castle Hamlet. And when, for example, there are shows being performed in lorries, shipping containers and gypsy caravans, it’s easy to lose sight of the originality behind the Traverse Theatre’s temporary migration to the Fruitmarket Gallery where Tim Crouch is performing England using the exhibition by Alex Hartley as his backdrop.
Crouch is no stranger to novelty. His first show, 2003’s My Arm, was about a boy who put his arm above his head for the hell of it and, 30 years later, still hadn’t taken it down. When the show began he made his props from whatever he found in the audience’s pockets.

Then, two years ago, An Oak Tree featured Crouch playing opposite an actor who had never seen the script and had to be fed cues throughout the show. There’s a similar unpredictability built into England, in which Crouch and fellow actor Hannah Ringham play the same character and have to decide instinctively who should say which line at every performance. ‘The gender of the character is never specified,’ says Crouch. ‘Hannah and I are learning all the lines and who delivers which line will be a live negotiation. How we tell it depends on the effect we want to have.’

But it would be wrong to portray Couch as some silly attention-grabber, a maverick showman trying to be heard above the hubbub of the Festival with a cheap gimmick. Rather, the quirky touches of his shows are a by-product of his sincere interest in the nature of theatre and live performance. Like Peter Brook and the ‘empty space’, he is fascinated by theatre at its most elemental: an actor, an audience and a story.

‘Theatre in its purest form is a conceptual artform,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t need sets, costumes and props, but exists inside an audience’s head.’ In the new show, the commission to perform in the Fruitmarket gives him the opportunity to explore the idea of transplantation. It is a play called England transplanted into Scotland; a piece of theatre transplanted into a gallery; the story of a man with a heart that has been transplanted from another person; and a character transplanted into two actors.

‘It is about acts of transplant,’ says Crouch. ‘Explicit in my mind was to ask what are the effects when one thing is placed inside another. The effect of a word inside a mind, a story inside an audience, one culture inside another and feeling a bit ballsy by giving it that title and opening it in Scotland.’

Crouch and the company are English, but he’s interested in Englishness in terms of transplantation and not in terms of state-of-the-nation analysis. ‘It’s not a play about cricket, warm beer, skinheads or nostalgia,’ he says. ‘But the title holds good in that there is a journey into a culture and it’s a particularly English culture. It’s a study of English experience. Anything that happens is played off the soundboard of the title. But I’m so not David Hare. It’s not about wanting to use theatre as a vehicle for political debate; there are better vehicles for that.’

England, Traverse at the Fruitmarket, Market Street, 0131 228 1404, 4–26 Aug (not 6, 13, 20), various times, £16 (£11). Preview 3 Aug, 8pm, £5.


  • 4 stars

Tim Crouch, known for whimsical premises and furious improvisation, uses Alex Hartley's exhibition as the backdrop for this highly original performance. Preview 3 Aug. 'Part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2007'.

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