The theatre-going experience usually involves a fair amount of people-watching, especially as a lone reviewer. Whilst lingering in the foyer sipping water (conscious not to drink too much too fast so you don’t have to awkwardly slip out to go to the loo halfway through) or glancing round a gradually filling theatre, you notice your fellow audience members: the demographic generally on the ageing, affluent side; the excited yet nervous friends and family; the smug industry types; the tell-tale notepad and pen of a fellow critic. But usually, once the proverbial curtain has gone up, we all disappear into darkness and forget about those around us. In Tim Crouch’s one-man King Lear spin-off, however, the audience members remain very much a part of the show. With the lights up throughout we feel seen both literally and figuratively as he skewers an imagined cast of caricatured theatre patrons.
With the stage of the sparkling, newly refurbished Brighton Dome Studio Theatre left unadorned throughout, it feels more like we’re here for a talk or a dress rehearsal. Crouch breaks the fourth wall early on and tells us that this is all we’re getting. It’s just him. He’s dressed plainly and his only prop is a bulky VR headset that he periodically places over his eyes. When it’s on, he’s in the world of an actor playing the role of the fool in King Lear, witness to the intensifying darkness of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
He describes what he sees, labelling everything including the audience and theatre, verbalising his train of thought as though he is seeing things clearly for the first time and rising to a higher level of consciousness. Rather than remain Lear’s complicit dog, he harnesses the power he holds as the wise fool and manages to break free of Shakespeare’s punishing timeline. He becomes a mere spectator to the action, escaping just before the brutal blinding of the Duke of Gloucester. It’s a powerful moment, reminiscent of when you realise you’re in a nightmare and you have to force yourself to wake up to escape it.
Wrenching off the VR visor, Crouch transitions between the Lear world and the real world. It’s often played for comic effect as he jumpcuts from the morass of Shakespearean tragedy to the trite observations of his stand-up comedian incarnation. This mimics neatly the role of the fool, who is able to entertain and philosophise at will, an idiot on the surface but wiser than the king. Whilst there’s a nihilistic cowardice to the Shakespearean fool, Crouch’s piece explores an overarching theme of the fool breaking free of those barriers, the fool who’s had enough and isn’t going to take it any more.
Just as he breaks the narrative mould in the VR world, Tim Crouch as the IRL wise fool goes off-piste taking aim again at the people in the audience, pointing out imagined giggling school boys, a Mr. Creosote character bloated by pre-theatre dinners, the chancer sitting in the vacant expensive seat. There’s a touch of the Stewart Lee routine of disparaging particular sectors of the audience who aren’t laughing enough, and with it, there’s a similar inkling of betrayal. But that’s just the start of it. The comedy switches in a beat to gloom-laden soliloquising on the death of the theatre industry. And he’s not just telling us it’s in danger, he’s telling us we’re fucking its dead corpse.
As he expands his thesis, there’s a deliciousness in the confrontation of performer chastising audience, telling them they’d probably rather be watching the TV or scrolling on their phones, wondering if they’ll be able to catch the last train; and then really pushing the limits of taste in one particularly graphic thought experiment involving incest as entertainment on a TV talent show. It‘s provocative, it’s theatre becoming self-aware. And the fun of it, of course, is that by accusing us all of being cultural virtue-signallers attending a funeral, we find ourselves potentially faced with what we were barely hoping for: a compelling piece of theatre, though it’s as yet unclear whether this all means that theatre is still alive or if it’s just a corpse being used as a puppet.
Meanwhile in Lear land, it’s a similar story: the kingdom is crumbling, everyone’s going mad and dying; and the fool acts as messenger of this unspeakable suffering, channelling it to us via his screams of agony, writhing in the VR mask like it’s suffocating him. In these moments we see the impressive range of Crouch as a performer. Though the jokes in the stand-up element don’t always carry much weight, elsewhere there’s plenty of poetry and passion, subtext, truth. If theatre is dead, this is a damn good send-off.
Brighton Dome Studio Theatre, Wednesday 31st Jan 2024
Photos by Stuart Armitt