We enter the auditorium of the Attenborough Centre, but are led onstage. There’s a double circle of chairs, and bright white light. ‘Don’t sit in the front row!’ someone behind me hisses. ‘They’ll make you join in.’ On each seat is a book.: hardback, plain institutional green, embossed with gold writing that reads: ‘Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation.’ The book looks like a bible or a hymnal. We are a congregation. Someone comes into the circle, a woman – not young, not old – dressed in the sort of sensible clothes you just don’t notice. The lights stay up. Hello, thanks for coming, thanks for being here, she says. Does everyone have a book? We nod, a mumble of ‘yeses’. The book is part of the play, she says. It’s part of the play. Are we ready? OK.
And so off we go – the prologue is done, the page is turned, we travel from page to stage and back again. This is what the play is, a negotiation between reading and watching, in a kind of parody of those outings to see something by Shakespeare in which half the audience members are clutching the playtext, eagerly reading along. Does that happen anymore?
Tim Crouch has never been afraid of the word ‘play’. He writes plays. Playful plays. They are often dark, disturbing, troubling – but always playful. He has fun. He has fun with words; he has fun with theatrical form. He plays with his audience, a cat-and-mouse game provoking them into re-evaluating things. Things like the relationship between belief and scepticism, between ethics and indecency, between truth and lies, between earth-bound fact and airy fantasy.
In this play, the three actors, and sometimes the audience members, read the words of the play aloud from the book. There are pictures in the book that also tell a story. When an actor says ‘OK’ we can turn the page. Sometimes there are words spoken that are not on the page. Sometimes there are physical actions different to those described on the page. The first time this happens it is a jolt. We do a double-take. Did I miss something? Am I on the wrong page? Afterwards, when it is all over, my companion says, it’s amazing isn’t it how easily we became institutionalised. I agree. How quickly we become complicit, disturbed if we see the rules being changed!
The story is of a personal, family tragedy that swells out into a crisis for humanity. It references all those ‘imminent collapse of civilisation’ moments that have plagued us over our lifetimes. War, bombs, famines, floods. Ecological disasters and evangelical dictatorships. It’s all in here. Who’s old enough to remember the three-minute warning; the public information films about using an overturned table to shelter from the imminent nuclear attack? And here we go again with the latest imminent catastrophe. Extinction beckons. What to do, rebels? Tell the truth. But whose truth? The writer’s truth? Each character’s truth? Some sort of indisputable, objective truth that is truly the truth? Yeah, right.
Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation shakes us, stirs us, and leaves us shell-shocked. Using just the power of words, we travel through time and space. No fancy sets or props needed – say it and we’re there. You too can believe six impossible things before breakfast! We’re guided with care through every step of this journey into a parallel world – the world of the play. Tim Crouch is disturbingly messianic in his role of cult leader/father figure/author of the text – offstage for most of the play, but always there in his words; making a Deus Ex Machina appearance towards the end to lead us through the imminent total-eclipse-of-the-sun Rapture moment that he has predicted – or more accurately, pre-ordained with his words. So what happens? Does the world end? Of course not. We’re still here, aren’t we? Although who knows where we might be in fifteen years time… Shyvonne Ahmmad gives a powerful performance as the cult leader’s nervy, wild-eyed daughter Sol, who has grown up believing that nothing can exist outside of The Book. Susan Vidler as her mother Anna (separated from her partner and daughter ten years earlier in an incident called The Breach) gets us on her side quickly – she is both the outsider and the person who initiates our engagement with it, and thus our ally, our representative. Will she rescue Sol from her father’s cult? There is a touch of Gilliam’s Brazil in the heartbreaking escape that isn’t really an escape. Or is it? It has all been directed with precision by longterm Crouch associates Karl James and Andy Smith. The book is beautifully illustrated with pencil sketches by Rachana Jadhav, looking something close to a graphic novel in part; and there is a great sound design by Pippa Murphy – buzzing bees, jet planes, ominous drones and all. The form of the play – this interaction between written/illustrated book, and live performance – is genuinely innovative.
It ends, and we start to leave – slowly, stroking our books before reluctantly placing them back on the chairs. People form small clusters. ‘It’s all a bit too clever-clogs for me’ says one. ‘It’s brilliant, the best thing I’ve ever seen’ says another. ‘It’s slippery’ says the author.
And what is ‘my truth’? Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation is a brilliant, slippery, clever-clogs, and utterly playful play. Virtual reality with no need for fancy headsets. Just bring your reading glasses.
Featured image (top): Tim Crouch:Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation. Photo Eoin Carey