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Coming home to Battersea Arts Centre - Tim Crouch discusses his exhilirating new work

Image: Tim Crouch, photographed by Amy Gibson.

Playwright and theatre-maker Tim Crouch lives to collaborate - with fellow artists and audiences alike. His shows are characterised by a fervent desire to connect with his guests and create a unique, one-of-a-kind performance. Drawing on inspiration from King Lear, his latest work Truth's A Dog Must To Kennel focuses on the character of the fool, Lear’s closest ally and the idea of virtual reality to send his protagonist back to wreckage of the world they left. RR caught up with TIm to learn more about his return to Battersea Arts Centre and experimenting with VR on stage.

Run Riot: Hello, Tim.

Tim: Hello, Run Riot.

Run Riot: How are you feeling ahead of the London run of Truth’s a Dog Must to Kennel at Battersea Arts Centre? 

Tim: It feels like coming home. BAC was the place where I used to hang out before I started to make work. It was a place that taught me that it’s okay to just try things, to experiment, to scratch, to fuck things up. It was non-threatening at a time when I felt threatened by so much theatre. It continues to be that place in the most generous and energising way. It understands that theatre is not just the finished product but everything around it – how language is used; how access is valued; how artists, audiences and communities are treated, how a building is respected. It’s leading the way.

Run Riot: Why did you choose Shakespeare’s King Lear as a starting point for this piece?

Tim: King Lear is perceived as like the Gold Standard of Western theatre – a good thing to bounce off if you have beef with theatre. It’s also the Shakespeare play that speaks most urgently to our sense of modern catastrophe. A corrupt leader, immense cruelty, a divided country, avoidable suffering. It’s a godless play with an audaciously unhappy ending. The parallels with where we’ve been in the UK for the last few years are rich pickings.

Run Riot: King Lear’s Fool disappears in the actual play, only reappearing via a mention later on. Did this always intrigue you?

Tim: It’s a moot point whether the Fool gets a mention after they’ve left the action. Towards the end of the play, Lear says, ‘And my poor fool is hanged’, but the only person to have been knowingly hanged at that moment is his daughter, Cordelia. So I think the Fool leaves and is never referred to again. It’s the strangest disappearance. No farewell. No dramatic reason other than no one needs him anymore. 

If I were in the Fool’s situation – a world in crisis where no one needs you – then I think that I would probably cut my losses and just fuck off too. Many performers during the pandemic did precisely that. Truth’s a Dog Must to Kennel, I suppose, is about the act of ‘just fucking off’. Fucking off from a world that’s got too hard to handle.  

Run Riot: What’s with the VR goggles?

Tim: The idea of the VR headset was the trigger to the writing of this play. I remember the thought arriving and testing it in some workshops and getting excited about what it does. It speaks obliquely to a place in which we’ve increasingly found ourselves over the last few years: watching things through screens. The acceptance of a creeping digitalisation of theatre threatens to overwhelm some of the things I hold dear about the form. I wear the headset for less than half of the time and it’s empty – a digital optic in a wholly analogue performance.

Run Riot: Is watching someone’s else digital experience theatre by itself?

Tim: Most theatre is about the experience of watching someone else’s experience, isn’t it? An actor performing a character in a realistic drama is in a sort of virtual reality. A reality that you, as an audience member, are not in. Traditional actor training encourages actors to contain their concentration within a fictional sphere – a place where they’re another imagined person in another imagined world. I have often thought of the traditionally trained ‘method’ actor, ‘in character’, looking out of the French doors of the traditional set – and I find myself wondering what the fuck they’re meant to be actually seeing out there. I think Truth’s a Dog plays with this thought. 

Run Riot: Does your audience need to know and understand Shakespeare’s King Lear to understand your piece?

Tim: I don’t think so. I hope not. It’s really not about King Lear. It’s about my relationship with the audience and our relationship to the world we’re in. King Lear is just the vessel and that vessel is not exclusively for people who know their Shakespeare. 

Run Riot: Truth’s a Dog Must to Kennel is an intense and moving work. Have you found performing it cathartic in any way?

Tim: I want to challenge the whole catharsis thing in acting. Actors who come off stage at the end of a play looking like they’ve been through some kind of personal trauma are not my thing. The deal is that I give this show away each time. It’s not mine; it’s ours. If I work too hard then too much of me still owns it. I’m happiest in Truth’s a Dog when I don’t break sweat. That’s not to say I don’t put the work in – but the work of this play is not about the performer’s physical or emotional expenditure. It’s something else; something more interesting.

Run Riot: You’ve created a number of works that prompt strong reactions and occasional walk outs. How have audiences reacted so far? In Edinburgh at the Lyceum, in Lisbon and your recent New York run?

Tim I hope there have been as many different reactions to the show as there have been people watching it. A lot of it exists inside audience members’ minds – and everyone’s mind is different. Some are more open than others!

In the show I tell a version of a famous American joke. – a rather rude one. It was nice in New York to have a deeper level of recognition for that joke. But the joke’s a joke and works wherever – or not. I think it works, but I would, wouldn’t I. One night in New York I watched an audience member walk out during that particular joke and they went on to post on a website that I was ‘a disgusting man subjecting an audience to the degradation that (I) should keep to (my) private sessions with (my) psychiatrist’. Really, it’s not possible to generalise about audiences!

Run Riot: Anything else you’d like to say to Run Riot readers?

Tim: I love you.

Truth's A Dog plays at Battersea Arts Centre, 28 February to 18 March 2023. To find out more and book tickets, please head here. 

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