The interview was to be over Skype, as Tim Crouch – actor, director, writer, Shakespeare expert – is based in London; so I prepared my questions, cooked dinner, got ready for bed, and dialled.
‘I’m in my pyjamas,’ I opened, and then realised that there was no video on. He need never have known. Blast. I blamed the situation on my children, of which he has three. The middle one, 23, is coming along to heckle him during the performance. The other two are jealous - of the trip to New Zealand, rather than the heckling – and the plan is to visit Waiheke.
‘You are doing a workshop, too,’ I say.
‘That is what is taking up most of my nervous energy.’
‘It’s sold out,’ I reassure him. I had tried and failed to get a ticket.
‘Then I’d better be good.’
We chat for a bit about my Masters, about him doing a phD - which did his head in, but also led to his writing creatively - ‘so, starting the PhD was a life changer even though I never finished it’. He has written a number of plays, garnering stellar reviews from the Guardian, New York Times and such like. He is very amiable, intelligent, and jolly for 8am, and sounds kind: I suspect he knows the name of all the rehearsal room cleaners. I ask him how he got into Shakespeare, honestly.
‘Honestly? From my Mum and Dad I suppose.
Dad turned down flying jet planes to read English at university and teach in state (i.e. not private) schools in the UK.’
‘Three years ago I was directing a production of Taming of the Shrew for the RSC, and he came to stay with me. The Shakespeare Centre has a vault under it, and in it is a copy of the First Folio. [After he was allowed to take a look at it] my Dad said that, now, he could happily die.’ He laughs gleefully. ‘So that is the sort of upbringing I had. I studied Macbeth for my A-Levels and I grew up talking about Shakespeare. I went on to do a drama degree, then did experimental work in my twenties. I taught Shakespeare, kept close to Shakespeare, and then in my thirties, I did the academic stuff and tried the PhD... And I was still acting, and found myself doing a Petruchio, a Mercutio, a Malvolio in a production in New York, and so I had that getting me practically involved. Then in 2003, I was asked by the Brighton Festival to make a play for a young audience and my response was I, Caliban.
It was never intended to be a series. It was just about the world of The Tempest from Caliban’s point of view. I had my fair share of playing minor roles in Shakespeare plays, and was used to looking at the play from that small perspective - on the periphery of the major narrative, and so I put them in the centre. It started with Caliban, the next year was Peaseblossom, the next year was Banquo. Then Malvolio in 2010, and then two years later, Cinna, about one of the poets from Julius Caesar. I hope that people who see these pieces will then go to the host play and have a privileged understanding of the minor roles in the play.’
[cred: Greg Veit]
I tell him that last year the Summer Shakespeare Production was of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
‘You don’t have to know [it]. Peaseblossom will, over the course of the play, tell the story in all its feverishness. He has a series of dreams in this place, and they become increasingly fraught. Because if you look at the model of love presented by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is pretty terrible. I have the image of a young child listening to, or being terrified by, the prospect of an adult’s active love life. It is the first example of rohypnol in literature. Oberon drugs his wife so she will fall in love, and shag, the first thing she sees when she wakes up. Hermia’s dad is going to have her killed if she doesn’t marry the man he wants her to marry. The lovers have the rohypnol thing happen to them, so they beat the shit out of each other.’
‘Even without it, they want to beat the shit out of each other,’ I join in, ‘AND it’s a turn on.’
‘That’s right, yeah, so there’s all that stuff going on and it gives a perspective on all that. It is very easy to get quite romantic about it. The language is extraordinary, and the magic is extraordinary, but if you scratch beneath the surface, and you put a kid on the side of that world...’
‘And there is a child – the Indian changeling boy which is why Oberon and Titania are having the row in the first place – he is in my show. I give him to the audience to look after.’
I think about looking after an imaginary boy for 40 minutes – ‘do you do it till the end?’
‘It was originally written for 8 year olds, and then like all these pieces, it has been hijacked by adults as well. I alter the piece according to who is in the room; it’s like one of those iPhone apps, it starts as version 1, and now it’s 8.7. I keep going back to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and, as I have done again this year, keep working new stuff into it. I’m ok to let [the character] ad lib, go free, go into the audience, as then I find new stuff. I think when I started, it was 45 minutes long, now it’s more like an hour, and I hope that isn’t excess fat he’s carrying, just an accretion of good stuff that I have found in the history of the show.’
I ask how he created the show. If he just sat down and wrote it?
‘Yes I did. All these solo pieces, I sit down and think, write, learn it, have a conversation with the designer and work out how to put myself in the design, and then I perform it. So there is no director credited for I, Peaseblossom because there isn’t one. I got invited to go to the Edinburgh Festival with I, Malvolio in 2010, and I wanted to up my game a bit, so [two sometime collaborators] watched me perform it and their two notes were ‘Don’t corpse, and you don’t need to ad lib.’ The first note I have stuck with, the second, I’m afraid, I fail with every night. So yeah, they are kind of storytelling pieces in that they evolve and they respond in the telling, and in the same way you wouldn’t expect a storyteller to rehearse, they know the story and they tell the story. Like with stand up, you wouldn’t expect a stand-up comedian to have a director. I, Peaseblossom is a bit of a mix between stand-up and theatre, so I don’t collaborate in the writing. I did a lot of devising in my twenties, and when I started to write, I wanted to just write my voice, so that’s what I do now.
‘Are they funny?’ I ask. I don’t know.
‘Oh, what an impossible question. Are they funny? Yes. I think they are.’ He pauses.
‘Do people laugh?’ I persist; I’m aware of the pitfalls of Shakespearean comedy. He roars with laughter.
‘Malvolio and I, Peaseblossom and Caliban – funny funny funny. Banquo – not funny. Cinna the Poet – not particularly funny. There are some funny bits. Banquo is just a lot of blood… A lot of blood. NO, but Peaseblossom funny. In the course of it, he falls in love with an adult member of the audience, all his teeth fall out, he’s convinced he’s naked, he thinks he’s in a play and doesn’t know the words. I’m taking Jungian dream symbolism, and giving it all to a middle-aged man playing a fairy. It’s quite hard for it not to be funny.’
He then tells a story of when Peaseblossom fell in love with a Catholic primary school head teacher, who was so appalled that she got the show banned - which of course wasn’t funny at the time, but now is. Love is a dangerous thing, I venture. He agrees, but ‘if an audience can go with it, they really have a good time.’
I ask him why he thinks Shakespeare holds such appeal now.
‘I think about how the world goes in cycles, particularly in relation to religion, and there are things that don’t go away. There are a certain sort of beliefs, or needs for beliefs, that don’t go away, but just get stronger and weaker. It’s a bit crass of me to say that there is a similar response, I think, with Shakespeare. I am not saying that it’s a humanist religion, a religious text, but it sort of is a quasi-humanist religious text, a humanist bible.’ He hesitates and laughs, ‘Sort of [in a way], Shakespeare invented the human. Does that make sense?’
I ask if he means that a lot of what we understand about humanity was said so eloquently by Shakespeare?
He goes further. ‘There is a book by Harold Bloom called The Invention of the Human, and he talks about Jesus, Yahweh and Hamlet as being the three greatest literary figures in Western Civilisation, which I’m really interested by – that in terms of understanding how human beings are driven, how they function independent of a religious world view, then Shakespeare is super important. All his [stories] are kind of parables about how we live our life, and how we are as human beings, and it seems incredibly important to me to keep those stories alive, particularly now as the world is going into this weird fundamentalist religious place. All the more reason to bang the Shakespeare drum, bang the drum of the human being having human agency, rather than celestial agency.’
I ask him what play speaks most to today’s situation. Rather gloomily, it’s Titus Andronicus.
‘As a westerner it seems very important [that young people] should know these stories and these characters because, they may not know it, but these stories and these characters determine to some degree how we think and how we live now. So there, that’s why I think Shakespeare continues to be so central. And those archetypes. I do the I, Malvolio piece a lot, and there is the archetype of the Puritan, the pleasure-hating disciplinarian, which is a model that Shakespeare gave us and is a really potent model now; so, to get an understanding of our continuum, our human continuum, Shakespeare is a really good vehicle to see where we come from and see how we are still the same, and see how we haven’t got any better but,’ he adds cheerfully, ‘we probably haven’t got any worse.’
Tim Crouch is performing in I, Peaseblossom at the Maidment Theatre for one week only from the 8-12th December. Tickets here.
[header cred: Lisa Barnard]