An Oak Tree

Winner of the prestigious Obie award, this short play (with a running time of 70 minutes) has already been touring for ten years. Now, it’s at The National. And certainly, the most eye-catching thing about it is the premise.

The play only has two actors, one of whom is the writer and director, while the other is an actor – who has never seen the play, or even its script, before the moment he steps on stage that evening. He’s as blind about what’s going to happen as you, the audience member, are.

Obviously, in order to make this work, a fresh actor has to be cast for each night, which makes each performance unique. And which, unfortunately, makes the play slightly review-proof, as you won’t see quite the same production that I did (an admirably wily move by its director, Tim Crouch). However, certain things always remain the same. Most important of these is the script, which the actor must follow word-for-word as he reads it in front of you, with no room for deviation.

Set upon a almost-bare stage with almost nothing but several seats, a table, and a tape recorder, the narrative involves a father, a hypnotist, the murdered daughter that ties the two of them together, and the oak tree that stands near where she died.

Contrasting with this sombre subject matter are some great meta-moments, where the narrative acknowledges its own contrived set-up: there’s a bit where the director asks “are you enjoying the story so far?” To which the actor, reading from the script, responds: “Yes. It’s very well written.”

These segments are excellent, so it’s a shame they’re few and far between.

The play, you see, is more of a tragic – or at least serious – piece, and so mostly focuses on the traumatised, grieving father and the guilt-ridden hypnotist. This is where it staggers and collapses. The build-up is fine and nicely executed. A suitably intriguing opening. A sense of both mounting drama in the narrative’s present, and an approaching revelation relating to the story’s past. But then, about forty minutes in, comes a nagging doubt: is this going anywhere?

You hold the worry in abeyance. The meta-humour references these concerns, cutely puncturing them, relaxing you back into your seat… before the play ends, with nothing that feels like a denouement in sight. This is the play’s crippling flaw. Obscurity, in the course of narrative flow, is all well and good, but it has to serve a meaningful purpose. For instance, it can dissipate at a critical moment, where a twist in the story makes everything fall into place, à la so much detective fiction. Or it can persist till the end, where the ambiguity and elusiveness actually deepen the story’s richness, and leave you with a sense of having touched on something almost ineffable (see ‘Waiting for Godot’).

Whatever the case, it all boils down to its effect upon the audience. Yet here, when the curtains closed, my overriding sense was a dissatisfied: huh? The narrative still didn’t make sense to me. I was no wiser 70 minutes in when the play ended than I was after 40 minutes. Which, for my money, is a massive failing.

It’s for this reason that I ultimately can’t recommend this play. At £15-£20, it’s not exactly a cheap night out. And the salt in the wound is that, when the play does take itself less seriously, it not only references its own confusing plot-line, but also exhibits genuine flashes of enjoyment.

This production is on at The National Theatre until 15th July. Tickets are £15-20.

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