When the popular kid at school includes you in their joke, it can be hard to tell whether they’re laughing with you, or at you. I’m still not sure which side of the line Jamie Wood’s new show I am a Tree falls on.
Wood invites us into his life right now. He’s had a baby, and he feels stifled in London. So he decides to go on a sort of pilgrimage. He’ll escape the city, find himself in nature and breathe in country air. Cool. Chuck in a few funny clowning sequences and sweet visual metaphors, and we’re fine so far.
I am a Tree. Classic drama school wanky theatre title, right? It suggests a meta nod to the awkwardness of poncy physical theatre workshops, one of the primary reasons a lot of people feel drama degrees are a waste of money. In many ways Wood usurps the wanky theatre stereotype, precisely by embracing it. He acknowledges the cringe tropes of physical theatre and gets us laughing along as audience members are invited to be props for his journey.
Wood’s previous show, O No!, was a riff off Yoko Ono’s instructive guide. In that, he gained the audience’s trust to the point where each show resulted in a member of the audience getting naked in a bag with Wood, and talking about love. In I am a tree, there are some truly touching moments – a hug, a lift and a cradle – which all feel like leftovers from O No!. Wood manages to encompass the joy of interacting with strangers, breaking down inhibitions with rippling laughter. He embraces silliness and the ridiculous delight of play, which his other job as a hospital clown must benefit from. At one point I was lifted up and embraced, and I wouldn’t have minded staying like that all evening.
But Wood’s tactics have changed. Everyone involved in the O No! was always a volunteer. In contrast, most of I am a Tree’s participants don’t get a choice. For much of it, we are guided rather than asked if we want to take part. This is mostly fine, if you’re on the receiving end of an action in the play. But when asked to be the active participant, a lack of consent feels uneasy. Here, Wood doesn’t create the environment where it feels okay to say no.
When I was brought up onstage and made to do something I didn’t want to do, I was (justifiably) resistant. This came across in my body language. When I looked apprehensive, he looked at me and said, “It’s not about you.” I had been laughing along for most of the show, but here I felt humiliated.
I’m normally a fan of audience participation. Most of the time I’m happy to go along with whatever the performer wants, if I feel it serves a purpose. When Tim Crouch asked me to pull away his chair as he stood by a noose in a performance of Malvolio, I didn’t want to do it, but I knew that it was important for the story. I knew that I was meant to feel uncomfortable. I knew that aided the story.
In I am a Tree, my lack of comfort was not an asset, but an accidental humiliation. My role could have been played by anyone else, and would have benefited hugely from someone who actually wanted to take part in that moment. I clearly wasn’t having fun, and that served no purpose to the story. In fact, it probably ruined the depth he was aiming for in that segment. Well sorry Jamie, it should have been a volunteer.
The audience at this preview were a very theatre-y audience, and I’m sure the case will be much the same when the show goes to the Edinburgh Fringe. But if I were to take any of my friends who don’t go to the theatre often, and they were asked to get up on that stage, most of them would run a fucking mile. Audience participation should either be funny, heartening, or purposeful. This was none of the above.
As he continues on his pilgrimage, Wood’s journey becomes more spiritual, and I start to lose understanding of how seriously he’s taking this. I don’t feel the deep questions resonate with the silliness, and I can’t help but think how GCSE so many of the actions are. By the end of it, I can’t be bothered to figure out if he’s being meta about it all.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been expecting a clever piece ripping apart the stereotypes of luvvies, just because of the title of the piece and the initial nods towards that path. Maybe he really was just playing up on his surname and really did just want to engage with the idea of family (family tree/ tree/ Wood) and nature. Maybe the fire-dance-scene I was involved with was genuinely a way to figure out a deep-rooted question in someone’s life. Maybe the show is actually designed to help people understand what they truly want, and who they truly are.
Maybe. But regardless of what it was meant to be, when it started I felt hopeful, humoured and lifted, both literally and emotionally. When it ended I felt humiliated, and that uncomfortable feeling that I still wasn’t in on the joke.
Preview at Ovalhouse Theatre, London, 28/07/17