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Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation review at the Studio, Edinburgh

Tim Crouch in Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation. Photo: Eoin Carey
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In millenarian movements, when the end comes and when salvation hopefully follows, it will be total, immediate and collective. It is always imminent.

We have come to be in the presence of Tim Crouch. A new piece by the leader of experimental theatre is an event, his devotees bristle with the same excitement as if at some religious gathering.

We have also come to experience the end of the world. Our leader, Miles, played by Crouch, has promised our salvation as the universe changes from one state to another. Only he can guide us through the experience, keep us safe.

As an audience, we sit in a big circle and we become, simultaneously, the audience of a piece of theatre by Crouch, and the followers of Miles facing the end of the world. Miles has written his teachings in a book, a copy of which we are given as we sit down and which we read collectively.

It’s hardbound and full of heavenly cross-hatched line drawings by Rachana Jadhav, as well as the script of the play. An actor tells us: “We’ll all turn the pages together. Is that okay?”

Some of us say yes.

In that script, told through text and illustrations like a graphic novel, a mother travels to South America to rescue her daughter from Miles’ cult, with Susan Vidler yearningly playing the mother and Shyvonne Ahmmad a confused and coiled bolt of energy as the indoctrinated daughter.

This builds so much on the previous teachings of Crouch, not least An Oak Tree, in which there’s also a parent grieving for a dead child, and people reading a play sight unseen. There’s also that scratching at the membrane between the reality of the narrative and the reality of what’s happening in the theatre.

By electing to be audience members in Crouch’s play, he also forces us to be Miles’ followers, singing from the same hymn sheet.

The decision for us as audience members – it’s always the same decision, only its stakes are heightened here – is whether we go along with it. Whether we accept the rules (of theatre, of religion, of society) or reject them. Turn the pages when we’re told? Speak when spoken to?

Deviation from the text is not sanctioned, but Miles can’t help the strange interplay between the fixed artefact of the text, and the live potential of the performance. Where the play really gets juicy are those moments, just a few of them, when the actions of the actors and the audience don’t match up to the book. It shows the potential for non-conformity.

Crouch overlays the idea of a cult leader and his faithful, a demagogue and his devotees, an actor and his audience in layers like sheets of acetate. Each layer is visible, each is pretty much the same.

Then there’s an extraordinary moment when Crouch first appears, late in the play, dressed in perfectly casual clothes, like, just a normal guy. One of us. But different.

It’s quite an experience, this play – a rigorous questioning of belief, fuelled by the thrilling imminence of the end.

Theatremaker Tim Crouch: ‘If the system needs dismantling, it must be done incrementally’

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Tim Crouch’s new play is a fascinating, thrilling examination of belief using text and pictures