An Oak Tree
Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 9:30PM
Matthew Kopelke in Theatre

For the first time in living memory, the Queensland Theatre Company have chosen to split their annual season into two very distinct flavours. So far we’ve been enjoying (or not enjoying, depending on your perspective) the productions in their Mainstage Season. These are the crowd pleasers, the ones that your average non-theatre type person will most likely enjoy. But in addition to this, we have a set of plays under the banner “The Studio Season”, which appear to be an attempt to respond to the work of groups like La Boite in producing more dynamic and experimental theatre. This is certainly an approach I applaud, and it was with great anticipation that I recently went and saw Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree, a play which sold itself on the notion that of the two actors appearing in the show, only one of them would have read the script. So it certainly sounded interesting? But was it? Thankfully, yes.

An Oak Tree explores a simple concept - what happens to people when a tragedy occurs. In this case, the tragedy occurs when a stage hypnotist (Hayden Spencer) accidentally kills a young girl when driving to his next gig. He hasn’t been dealing with the grief at all well, and so when he suddenly finds that at his latest performance the father of the dead girl is one of his volunteers, he finds this a valuable opportunity to try and put right what once went wrong. And while there is a certain degree of novelty value in advertising a show in which the second actor has no knowledge of the play itself, the show ultimately cheats its way around this by having Spencer whisper cues to the other person almost constantly throughout the show. The improvised nature of the piece comes more from seeing how emotional the actor can get when faced with material they have only just learnt about. It was a shame the show plays it safe on this front, but I am not sure if this was a QTC decision, or something that is present in the original script itself.

Now, it would have been quite easy for a naturalistic play to have been written and produced to examine this concept, but that wouldn’t have been as interesting. Instead, with each show a different actor takes on the role of the girl’s father, and through the use of various Brechtian devices, the audience has an opportunity to explore what it means to feel grief over something terrible happening. Because we never get a chance to emotionally engage with either character, or indeed the situation, it is easy to retain an almost scientific detachment from the proceedings, and think about what is happening, rather than feel. It makes for uncomfortable viewing, if nothing else. At no stage do you feel as though you are being sucked into the world presented on stage. This feeling alone makes the show worth viewing, because so rarely does a production attempt to minimise emotional involvement.

The overall look & feel of the show reflects this desire to alienate the audience. Instead of the standard raked seating being employed, the audience were forced to sit on plastic chairs around a makeshift portable stage, complete with visible lighting rigs and direct audience address. The plethora of Brechtian devices made this a Senior Drama student’s dream production, and certainly as a Drama teacher I applaud the overt use of these techniques for a modern audience to experience. Hayden Spencer seemingly relished the chance to play this role, dropping in and out of character on a whim, addressing his co-star either as an actor, or as the character, even at one stage departing the theatre to grab a drink from the bar for his co-star. Some interesting ideas were present here, even if occasionally their use felt somewhat repetitive and forced.

Overall, I have to say that An Oak Tree marks a very different type of play from the Queensland Theatre Company for 2011, and while it wasn’t always successful at achieving its goals, it got more than enough correct to make it an interesting experiment in telling a simple emotional story without the emotion. Even though the QTC season has now finished, it’s well worth keeping an eye out for any future productions of this play by other theatre groups. The concepts present are sure to pique almost anyone’s interest.

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