Tim Crouch has never been shy of asking big questions about art and performance. This new ’unplugged’ touring version of Adler and Gibb, first seen at the Royal Court in 2014, has been simplified.
Janet Adler was a celebrated American artist who recoiled from and rejected the idea that her art was a commodity. She destroyed some pieces. She ate others. Eventually she retreated, hoping to lead a quiet life with the love of her life, Margaret Gibb, in rural seclusion, only to die a few years afterwards. But can one die as an artist? Her work still has value, more perhaps, and her life, her story, is no longer her own to control – if it ever was.
Adler and Gibb is an act of resistance. It’s framed by a series of sections in which a graduate student reads from her thesis about Adler’s life and work. In the first half we see two people, a Hollywood star and her acting coach, trying to dig up information on Adler, her relationship with Gibb, and the mystery surrounding her death, for a film about her life. These scenes are performed in a determinedly un-naturalistic way. Cath Whitefield and Mark Edel-Hunt stand next to each other, arms at their sides, and deliver their lines at the audience. A small child, following instructions delivered to him via headphones, hands them props. He also plays Gibb’s dog. The use of a child (there were two at the Royal Court) adds another barrier to the piece but also injects a little jeopardy into proceedings.
These scenes have a particular texture. They flirt with performance art. They feel a bit self-consciously ‘arty’. Gradually the production relaxes, the scenes become less dislocating. A hand is extended to the audience.
Denise Gough played the role of the actress in the 2014 production and, good as Cath Whitefield is here, there are few people who are Gough’s equal. The amplification of the piece means ambiguity is lost. The character of the actress feels more rapacious, a creature with her talons out, and the ending feels like a blunt punchline, a thump. Gina Moxley, as Gibb, gives a performance of tenderness and sadness amid all the frames and the layers. Her turn is full of ache and loss and longing.
The play works both as a straightforward mystery story with elements of a thriller, and as an essay on the relationship between art and commerce, the birdlike circling over the lives of artists, privacy, fandom, biography, fiction, the way people seek to consume the things they love. In condensing the play, some nuance has been lost, but there’s still so much in it that is fascinating and thought sparking. It’s the kind of play that unspools in your head for days afterwards and by placing it in Summerhall, during the Fringe, with all the associated connotations, another layer has been added to this rich mixture.