In a leafy street in Surrey, in January 2012, Eric shoots Neil. Neil is badly wounded and, ambulance sirens blaring, is rushed to a hospital in London. Eric, in a fit of remorse, turns the gun on himself. Neil is in intensive care slipping in and out of consciousness for several weeks and, despite all the best efforts of the doctors, in late March he dies.
Where and when was Neil killed? He wasn't killed in January, because he was still alive in March. He wasn't killed in Surrey, since he was still alive in London. So was he killed in London in March? This seems strange because he wasn't just killed, he was killed by Eric. But by March Eric was dead. Let's add, for the hell of it, the additional thought that Eric is agoraphobic and has never left his Surrey home. It then becomes additionally odd to say that Eric killed Neil in March in London, if he's never been to London and was dead at the time. If we try to say that he was killed between London and Surrey from January to March 2012, it seems to do linguistic violence to the specificity of the gunshot.
It's a philosophical puzzle that, inevitably, has detained a lot of philosophers, trying to unpick some of the peculiarities of action, intention, and responsibility and the different levels of descriptions we have of these things .
I thought of this puzzle a couple of weeks ago when I fell out with an old friend. I'm not brilliant at keeping in touch with people and nor is he; I'd intermittently noted to myself that we've not spoken or emailed for a year and kept trying to remind myself to get in touch. It occurred to me that while I knew my silence was a mixture of busy and lazy, his silence could be that he was cross with me for a reason I didn't know; but he could have been thinking the same. Then, a fortnight ago, we bumped into each other at the theatre and I thought I'd detected a certain coolness in his greeting. I emailed him the next day to ask if we were okay, mentioning my own perception of the last year and our meeting. His response was to deny that we had fallen out but also to express disapproval in my making it all about me; in fact, he said, (a) he'd been ill and (b) he was talking to someone else. What I detected was not about me at all.
It was a paradoxical response (at least as I received it) . It denied that we'd fallen out, but seemed to enact a falling-out in the process. The denial that we'd fallen out seemed to be expressed in a way characteristic of people who have already fallen out. We seemed to fall out, in other words, because we had already fallen out yet it also seemed to be my suggestion that we may have fallen out that made us fall out.
I thought of the puzzles about action. When did we fall out? Was it at the moment of in some originary action of mine last year (of which I'm unaware)? In the silence over the past year? In the cool greeting? In my email? In the reply? Did we slowly, gently fall out over the course of a long year, or did we fall out in the blink of an eye, in a misunderstood greeting or a misunderstood email? Where did we fall out? At the place of the greeting? In front of my computer? In front of his? When a friendship falls apart, what I feel most strongly, almost physically, is the gap and the distance; the diminished friendships spatialised as if friendship is something that fills the air between us, places us in the same world. For me, friendship's end is a sudden apprehension of the spaces between us all.
These sad reflections prepared me well for Tim Crouch and Andy Smith's what happens to the hope at the end of the evening , performed as part of the Almeida Festival, in which two old friends meet, fall out, and fall back in. The story, such as it is, concerns Tim, who is in the North-West for an anti-fascist demo and arranges to spend the night at his old friend Andy's house outside Lancaster. Andy and Tim are both married, Andy blissfully, Tim unhappily - it transpires that he's having an affair and the marriage is in trouble. Andy is domesticated, calm, doing a PhD at Lancaster University. Tim is unsettled, aggressive, a drinker, paranoid about the boys gathering on the green outside Andy's house. Andy is rather judgmental about Tim's life and attitudes; Tim wants Andy to loosen the fuck up and chill the fuck out. Eventually, they overcome their awkwardness - the awkwardness of friends who haven't seen each other for a long time, who have probably moved on in their lives - and they spend a little time together.
This achievement, spending a little time together, is no mean feat, and is given valency in the show. Early on, Andy explains that spending time together is one of his favourite things: in that context he means, Andy and us - the audience - in the same room together. Andy and Tim enter, in fact, from the audience, as if to emphasise (or maybe it's just true) that there are no privileged spaces that distinguish us. (In fact, there's an offstage space, where they get props and bits of set from, though it sort of felt like a shallow space - no one was there long; we saw everything come from there; it was an open secret). This was a show about communion, about with each other and for each other, about the way we might take each other as ends not means, a show about the radical potential of spending a little time together.
But the show also theatrically embodies the distance between people. Andy and Tim are on stage together, but they are not in the same space, not at all. Andy sits stage left; Tim roams stage right and they hardly ever leave their respective sides of the stage. At various moments, Tim asks Andy to join him and mostly Andy refuses. Andy is reading from a script, Tim is speaking from memory, as if spontaneously; Andy is speaking to us, Tim is speaking to Andy. Andy seems to be Andy (Andy is doing a PhD at Lancaster; he lives where Andy lives in the play; he is married to that person; they have that child), but Tim isn't 'Tim' (he's been married for much longer, doesn't travel the country participating in anti-fascist demos as far as I know, has a quite different personality); put another way, 'Tim' is fictional but 'Andy' is realesque; Tim assembles a sort of realistic 'living room' set (he laboriously brings on stuff) while Andy sits with his script on a music stand, denying realism of representation; and Tim is an actor, but Andy is a performer (I'll let you guys work out what that means). All of this means the two men can't spend time together because they seem barely to be in the same universe, let alone the same room.
This provides a deep set of foundations for the disagreements and misunderstandings that emerge between these men. Watching the show, I was surprised to think a lot about Harold Pinter; perhaps because the show is about the aggression that lurks between even friendly male friendships. The first thing Andy says directly to Tim is 'alright, mate'? 'Mate' is one of those ambiguous terms that appears to be friendly but can just as easily express hostility or contempt. The men address each other as 'mate' throughout the play; in Tim's mouth it appears to be a constant challenge or accusation (are you my friend?); in Andy's it seems to be an appeal (be my friend). Andy repeatedly tells us the time and that he is 'waiting for my friend': the phrase initially refers to Tim's late arrival, but eventually it accumulates the suggestion that Tim has arrived but the friendship has not. Throughout, the show seems ambivalent about whether (these) men can genuinely be together or whether rivalry and rancour will always undo their attempts to make contact.
It's a show about male friendship, but, as always with Tim Crouch and Andy Smith's work, it's an investigation of theatre. Throughout their work together, Tim Crouch has tried to erase the gap between actor and audience. He doesn't do a warm up, doesn't get into character, is often onstage as the audience arrives, always looks at and addresses us, sometimes sits amongst us. He's described ‘placing the audience in a dark space [...] getting them to sit still and quiet while we subject them to indulgent and impersonated fantasies’ as ‘an abuse of power’ . This is not to say that Crouch must think he has abolished the distinction between us and them; he's drawing attention to it. In this instance, it's not just Tim and Andy who struggle to be in the same room, but it's them and us. Andy addresses us directly; early on he asks us to greet those around us with the words 'pleased to meet you' (a mishearing of the Anglican 'peace be with you'); later he asks us to take our shoes off just as he asks Tim to take his shoes off: 'It shows you've arrived at a place. It shows you're really here,' he says.
That concern for the 'real' sits on the performance as a horizon, something glimpsed at the edge of theatre. The theatre seems to be a place of great realness - liveness, co-presence, spatially and temporally specific, unrepeatable, unique - but at the same time undoes the real, duplicating and pluralising it. Tim (I think) says to Andy 'I can't remember the last time we sat down and had a real conversation,' which is a moot observation since they are now sitting down and having a fictional, scripted and rehearsed conversation. Does taking our shoes off make us really here? Where is here? The Almeida or Andy's house? (This question is asked throughout: 'Can I stay here?' asks Tim. 'Where?' replies Andy; later, in response to Andy's request that they sit together, Tim asks aggressively 'where do you mean? where exactly do you mean?')
At several moments in the show, Tim and Andy pause and look out at us. These moments foreground and problematise our co-presence. Tim is in a fictional world (rather more so than Andy, who breaks the fourth wall) so when he looks out at us, who does he think he's looking at? Through the show, his paranoid worries about the kids outside seem to reflect to the odd position of the actor in a fictional representation thinking about the audience: 'it feels like a goldfish bowl,' he worries, 'people staring in'. But also, in those silences, who are we? who are they? Are we expected to act? Free to act? Are these the comfortable silences of old friends? Are they the conversational vacuums of people with nothing to say to each other? I reflected on Tim Crouch's persona; in his earlier shows, he often acknowledges the audience, tries to put the audience at their ease, smiles a lot, handles the room. But this doesn't just put us at our ease: Crouch is a physically quite forbidding figure, six-foot-something, shaved head; meeting our gaze is, in a way, a very challenging thing to do. There is an ambiguity and ambivalence in that mode of address just as this show doesn't pretend it's easy to spend time together.
It took me back to the last collaboration I saw by Crouch and Smith, which was Smith's performance text, Commonwealth, which I saw Crouch perform as a 'surprise theatre' at the Royal Court on 2 July. Commonwealth is a story about a theatre performance, the audience who go to see it, what they hope to get from it, and what the event achieves. Like this one, Commonwealth is a coin balanced on its edge, with one face showing here and now and the other face showing elsewhere. Crouch/Smith were both incredibly precise about the audience and incredibly general:
And at the beginning of this story these people get together, they gather together in this room like this.
They come through the doors a bit like those ones and sit down in some chairs a bit like these ones. They come in and sit down and gather together.
The audience is a bit like us; what they do is not unlike what we do; they are sitting on chairs rather like those we are sitting on. But they are, it seems, a hypothetical, fictional audience. In Commonwealth we are both ourselves and others; both shows find a theatrical structure to explore being together.
The show sort of affirms the value of the theatre, both as a way of diagnosing what separates us and as a means of bringing us together. It draws attention to the boundary that we are on when we take part in an audience and uses that to model the curious mixture of freedom and obligation that seizes us when we are with others. It's another remarkable piece from Tim Crouch and Andy Smith and one of the most beautiful pieces I've seen this year.
1. See, for example, Alan R. White, 'Shooting, Killing and Fatally Wounding', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society New Series, 80 (1979 - 1980), pp. 1-15. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4544947>
2. Tim Crouch. ‘Darling You Were Marvellous’ in Caridad Svich (ed.) Out of the Silence. Roskilde: Eyecorner, 2012, p. 106.