The 52nd HK Arts Festival

There is no play. Disappearing Lear

Text / Richard Lord

British experimental playwright and actor Tim Crouch's one-man show Truth's a Dog Must to Kennel is a work of theatre that's mainly about theatre itself. Fairly typically of the work of its creator, it's a meta-theatrical examination of the role of the art form that questions its validity in the modern world. But while doing this in such a compellingly tricksy and thought-provoking manner, it also manages to affirm exactly what theatre can be.

Crouch plays the Fool from Shakespeare's King Lear, the tragic king's comic foil and verbal sparring partner, who famously disappears less than halfway through the play. Here, he is revealed to have left because he's simply had enough and sits on stage wearing a virtual reality headset through which he supposedly views the performance that he has just left, which is happening in a much posher theatre, and describes it to the audience.

The playwright has said that he chose King Lear as his source text because it is set in a turbulent realm when governance is unravelling, something he sees as having widespread resonance in the contemporary era—and he felt a certain sympathy with the Fool's desire to simply leave.

The production looks at the role of human connection and of shared physical experiences like the theatre, compared to mediated digital experiences, by being both of those things at the same time. It was written during the pandemic and first performed in 2022. Unlike most of his plays, which usually percolate for years, Crouch says this one was written quickly.  It is a meditation on disappearance created during a time when theatre itself, as a performing art, had largely disappeared from the world. The absence of the play being described serves as a metaphor for the state of theatre and by extension of live performance generally.

In fact, it's completely absent; at one point he notes that his virtual reality headset isn't showing anything at all. It's a very Crouchian move: admitting, pointing out and revelling in the artificiality of theatre has been central to his oeuvre since the first play he wrote, 2002's My Arm. Throughout his career, he has pushed the boundaries of theatrical form, gleefully trampling all over conventions of realism and mise-en-scène, involving the audience in creating the story and even using inanimate props to stand in for actors. In The Author, for example, actors sit in the audience discussing an abusive play they have performed in; in Adler and Gibb, the performances move from deliberately stilted to naturalistic as the play progresses; and in An Oak Tree, a different actor plays one of the two roles each night, with no advance knowledge of the production.

All along, Crouch's work has been a metatextual examination of theatre as a form, its methods of representation and its ethical responsibilities, as well as those of its audiences. With Truth's a Dog Must to Kennel, he continues this investigation, asking us to consider what role theatre can play in a post-truth, post-pandemic, politically fractured world.

Truth's a Dog Must to Kennel

Date:6-9 Mar 2024

Venue:Studio Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre