Originally written for Exeunt
Being affectionately referred to as the ‘unplugged’ version, Tim Crouch’s Royal Court hit of 2014 now appears at the Unicorn for a brief run after its turn at the Fringe. Managing to approach it knowing little more than that its subject matter is the fictive artist Janet Adler somehow feels like an achievement on par with remaining unspoilered for The Cursed Child.
This is a strange year to watch Adler & Gibb. When it seems as though we have done nothing but haemorrhage beloved public figures into the great beyond since the calendars ticked over to January, it feels odd to pick over the bones of the dead. Yet there’s a prescience to the way in which it pulls at our obsession with attempting to recreate those we have admired, as though their spirit can be captured, bottled, returned. Trapped in a cracked mirror and brought back. Not the same, but close enough. Bowie is dead, long live our immediately announced Labyrinth remake.
Presented here without a set, and with the barest minimum of props, Adler & Gibb immediately reminded me of one of my favourite things – a radio play. An art student presents her study of the life, art and (recent) death of Adler, like a disconnected and fragmentally informative voiceover, while the action of the piece follows a woman and her coach (life-, acting-, sports-?) who arrive in the middle of nowhere, snort some coke (probably not sports-) and attempt to break into an abandoned house.
Both women are Lou. Art student. Actress (ah, acting-). Separated only by time. The years since Janet Adler died and Lou’s idol became her passion. Obsession. Purpose. Lou owns Adler. Lou deserves Adler. Lou is Adler.
Lou is making a film.
The impression I had of Adler & Gibb from those who had seen the initial run was that it was a complex, knotty, baffling thing – a prolonged brain exercise that was utterly worth it in the end. Yet whatever has been done to condense it to this version has, for better or worse, rendered it less impenetrable. It unfurls slowly, like a long, slow focus pull in which everything gradually attains clarity and we shift from the details of Adler’s past life to that of Gibb’s present one.
When Lou (Cath Whitefield) and acting coach Sam (Mark Edel-Hunt) blunder into what they believe to be this perfectly preserved museum of Adler’s art and life, they instead encounter its greatest exhibit – her very much living and still grief-stricken partner Margaret Gibb.
But no documentary, this. The film is a biopic. Lou is to star. And Lou wants Adler’s truth. But not the real Adler; not the fallible, human person who wanted to erase all that remained of her artwork and live alone with her partner. Lou wants Lou’s Adler’s truth. One that looms large in the imagination, that fits her legacy, that makes for an appropriate end – for an uplifting awards speech. She wants the perfect narrative bookend to “Janet Adler was born in Buchenwald concentration camp.”
And that comes at any cost.
Tim Crouch pulls at many threads within Adler & Gibb. The obsessions and pretensions of the art world. Our inherent ability to subsume and destroy the things that we admire, in a frantic desire to possess and replicate them. The ephemeral nature of theatre, in which a child can play a dog, a dead body, a stage hand (is that a gun or a lobster?) and the lie, the illusion is shared – and the more fixed nature of film, in which illusions are tricks and what we see is real until it isn’t.
Adler’s work, a large degree of which was created in tandem with Gibb, is similarly ephemeral. Their art is a living puppy, a painting eaten. Artist Yves Klein exhibited empty rooms and once jumped off a building into nothing – similarly, their work is a leap into the unknown. Art which exists in the moment, and whose documentation is not the art.
Perhaps it’s Gina Moxley’s affecting performance as the fractured Gibb, but what translated for me was that although Crouch titled the play like an exhibition, a retrospective, its real theme is that which keeps bleeding through the young Lou’s lecture. It is in fact the name of their greatest artwork; a life lived together. One that cannot be replicated or undone.