Tom Bolton in south London
3 March 2023
For Tim Crouch, challenge is inherent to performance. Walking onto a stage to address an audience immediately raises questions about who we imagine we are, both audience and actor. Truth’s a Dog Must to Kennel is as stripped back as performance can be with no set and only Crouch, wearing a suit and a virtual reality headset, talking to us on a bare stage. He warns us that this is all we will get, and that there is nothing inside the headset either. Then, having put the bar for audience engagement very high indeed, he tangles us in a net of his own devising, leaving us amused, baffled, embarrassed, and horrified during an intellectually fascinating, theatrically irresistible hour and ten minutes.
Photo credit: Stuart Armitt.
The show could be entitled “I, Fool”, and it clearly relates to Crouch’s series of monologues imagining Shakespeare from the perspective of marginalized characters: I, Banquo, I, Cinna (The Poet), I, Malvolio, and I, Peaseblossom. For some of the time he is the Fool from King Lear, and the show plays around the character’s disappearance in Act III, his fate unexplained, never to return. Crouch, with his headset on, describes a theatre to us. King Lear is playing on stage but he, the Fool, cannot take the horrors happening around him anymore. He walks out, or tries to, away from the aristocrats torturing and destroying one another. But he also turns his gaze on the audience in a West End-style venue, from bored corporate Deloitte executives to those on pre-theatre dinner deals, in the £95 seats, or who have snuck down from standing. He describes the nature of a theatre dominated by money, where the motivations of those attending are shaped by spending power and privilege.
The chaos on stage is just a spectacle to the West End audience, a story with no direct relevance. But Crouch also tells us about ourselves, the Battersea Arts Centre audience, in virtual reality, suggesting we are a Guardian-reading, self-satisfied tribe. He questions whether there is any point in performance or theatre. All “this” is dying, he says, everyone watches television now. Only people like us are interested, and we do not matter. It is a stark assessment of the arts in Britain, and contains more truth than performers generally like to acknowledge. Yet he also simultaneously counters his argument with his powerful, seemingly effortless presentation of a blank slate, where a stage can be used to do and say anything.
Crouch, however, is not just interested in the small world of the stage, but in culture much more widely. The show contains a sequence of jaw-dropping depravity, in which the repeated use of the phrase “you know” does nothing whatsoever to disguise the scenes of gruesome, Naked Lunch-style sex acts he describes, in detail. It is a disconcerting sequence as Crouch, whose charm makes the audience complicit with him from the start, becomes a suddenly menacing figure asking us whether we are entertained and why we think we should trust him. It is a brutal parody of reality culture, strongly suggesting that we are culturally in a dark place.
The show’s title is a quotation from the Fool and reads, in full, “Truth’s a dog must to kennel / He must be whipped out”. The Fool is a character who says “no” and stands up to the horror. He shows us that truth is something that society claims to value but rarely wishes to acknowledge. The truths about us are unpalatable. We are deluding ourselves when we think that we do not exploit others, that theatre is a medium of equality, or that we can really see what is going on. But at least we are willing to listen while Crouch shows us ourselves, in a virtual reality mirror. At its best, his work is extraordinary, taking big questions and turning them into theatre with remarkable clarity. Truth’s a Dog to Kennel is Tim Crouch on top form.