My Arm (Online review)

My Arm (Online review)

The very first of my online reviews some months ago was for Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio so it seems more than appropriate that after 150 days of consecutive viewing/reviewing I should commemorate this milestone by returning to review his latest show. Actually, My Arm is both his latest and his first as this was an online reworking of the piece which Crouch used to kick start the phase of his life when he decided to make his own plays. It was presented yesterday as part of a fund raising drive in the Shedinburgh Fringe Festival (because everything happens in a virtual shed) concentrating on stalwarts of the actual Fringe. My Arm was first presented at The Traverse Theatre as part of the 2003 festival.

myarm1

Crouch is often described as a theatre maverick and My Arm demonstrates why. It is story telling in its purest form using the power of words and the audience’s imagination to develop a shared experience even though the central premise is about as far removed from “ordinary” experience as it is possible to be. The play starts as though Crouch is simply retelling an anecdote from childhood. Indeed, it is impossible to divine at first whether he is actually talking about his own real childhood or is playing a character; it is only when he reaches a key moment that we realise it is the latter. The protagonist tells of family life in the 1970s and especially an ongoing competition with his brother Anthony in perpetrating meaningless stunts such as holding one’s breath, maintaining inordinately lengthy silences or wrapping an elastic band round a finger and leaving it there until necrosis sets in. For reasons of sheer bloody-mindedness, the central figure decides to see how long he can hold one arm above his head and then proceeds to do so for the rest of his life. It is a spontaneous and apparently meaningless decision but will have huge repercussions down the years.

Pain, ridicule, isolation, extensive work with psychiatrists and an inability to lead a “normal” life have no effect on getting him to deviate from his chosen lifestyle. His health systematically breaks down and a finger is amputated; he becomes the object of medical curiosity and even finds himself being displayed as an art exhibit. “There was nothing to be done. I was an internal shambles and would probably drop down dead at any moment. At the most I had a couple of years. I had rotted. I had composted from the fingers down.” The only important thing to him is that his arm remains raised. Except it doesn’t – at no point does Crouch actually raise his hand to even shoulder height; nevertheless, the power of the writing and delivery convince us that this is indeed the case.

Crouch’s delivery is low key and very measured – the moments of high drama are left to form in the viewer’s mind and the piece will have different resonances for different audience members. The absent characters are represented by random objects – in this instance photos sent in by viewers – e.g. brother Anthony is a road map, and each time the object appears on screen it is a given that the “character” has entered the narrative. The protagonist himself is represented by an Action Man doll. Crouch also plays with form by writing down on scraps of paper and holding up key phrases. At one point he describes how the young boy maintains what he calls The Great Silence when he refuses to speak to other people. Crouch simply stares at us for what seems for ever. Powerful though that must be in a theatre, it is highly unnerving even down the lens of the camera and I found myself shifting uncomfortably even though the logical part of my brain was telling me that in this instance the actor couldn’t actually see me.

Shed

Although there is a through story line, in the end this is a play about playmaking and performance. It picks apart all the things we think we know about theatre and then replaces them – just not in the expected form and order to which we are accustomed. As a performer Tim Crouch is mesmerising and I count myself lucky that I was able to catch him in live action shortly before lockdown in another of his pieces about the creative process, I Cinna (The Poet). As My Arm was a one-off performance, I cannot recommend that you sit down and watch, simply because it is no longer there – such is the transitory nature of performance. However, if you do get the opportunity to catch him live in the future then seize it with both hands – you don’t even have to keep one of them raised.

My Arm was a one-off live event. However, Tim Crouch has a number of other pieces online. Please click on titles to access his solo performances in I, Malvolio, I Banquo & I, Peaseblossom. The RSC’s version of I, Cinna (The Poet) is also available.

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