Adler & Gibb (Unicorn Theatre, 2nd September 2016)
It always feels unusual to be leaving a theatre having loved and disliked a play at the same time. After watching the performance and researching the original 2014 production, I can only pinpoint this to the fact the current production has suffered due to its reconstruction as a touring piece, losing its refinement in the process. After mulling over this play for a while, I have to conclude that although I loved this play, there are some things I felt I frustratingly didn't get, which were due to decisions made to make it 'suitable' to tour.
Adler & Gibb begins by framing the meta theatrical existence of Janet Adler and her partner Margaret Gibb, two female artists who are created as contemporaries to Warhol. Adler's biography is presented to us via a dissertation presentation from a college student, dated many years previously. In the present time, we witness an actress and her acting coach breaking into the deceased Adler's unexpectedly occupied home, in pursuit of an authentic method of rehearsal for an upcoming film biopic.
It is a rich, layered production with a haunting tension which culminates in an appropriately thought-provoking end, questioning the moralities of authenticity and appropriation. Tim Crouch, the writer and co-director, utilises an intriguing technique of characterisation, graduating from a minimalistic approach (both actress and acting coach begin with no accents, facing the audience and performing their dialogue in no interaction) into naturalism as the play progresses. It was incredibly effective at building tension, as by the time we witness the characters facing each other, everything from proximity to eye contact is scrutinized for its intention and impact.
Some elements of the production however felt gimmicky in performance despite their intelligent purpose. I appreciate the production's concept reflected the conceptual art content, however I'm sure some will agree, the first time you witness conceptual art, it is difficult to grasp the purpose. For example, a young child was used to interchange the actors props, swapping out weapons for plastic lobsters and such like. This added another layer to the Brechtian staging. The child paradoxically accentuated the 'scene within a scene within a scene' whilst using the props as a symbol for the suspension of belief. If the audience commit to believing a pool float can be a weapon, similarly they commit to Adler and Gibb being real women - it wasn't until after the performance, when I researched them, that I realised that they were not. The removal of authenticity, created by the prop changes, was also layered with the fact the child was not acting with free will - a woman sat side of stage, whispering instructions into the young girl's headphones which she wore throughout the performance. This was a visual metaphor for the experience Adler & Gibb had with the public, and the effect the actress has on the audience - a sense of disillusionment, and failed representation.
As previously mentioned, despite loving all these elements of the production, it did have some shortcomings. These fell in its touring set. A review of the original 2014 production stated "Our understanding of the Adler & Gibb story is shaped by the format it takes, be it conceptual art, presentation, theatre or film"1, as clear formats were demonstrated in the set, and use of technology, as seen in the image below. There were also screens projecting the acting coach's filming of rehearsals. As you can see in this image, the lecture presentation is using the actresses' scenes as a replacement for a slideshow. However, in the 2016 production, the college student simply stands at alternating sides of the stage, speaking into a microphone. The present day 'scenes' had spoken references to filming, but there was no set or equipment, except a shelving unit with the random props on. Therefore the understanding of the content was masked by our inability to grasp the concept. A complex concept required those clear signposts that the 2014 set provided - it took around ten minutes for me to understand what I was watching, and even then the key formats were diluted versions of their former selves.
I also realised many reviews suggested the actress was the present-day version of the college student. I did not connect the two characters. The two actors were strikingly aesthetically different - the college student had tattoos and a thick american accent. I imagine Crouch was yet again questioning representation - but this in fact hindered the audiences understanding of the basic story.
Therefore overall, the current touring production is worth a watch purely for the interesting concept, and the depth of the understanding that can be achieved upon reflection. As The Stage suggested, "'It’s the kind of play that unspools in your head for days afterwards"2. However, I do feel that by making the play easier to tour, more tweaks were needed to refine it. Overall, its 'concept over content' effect is juxtaposed to its diluted, minimal format. Ironically on reflection, for a play concerned with misappropriation, the production itself feels like another layer of unwelcome adaptation of Adler & Gibb's meta theatrical life.