March 2007 was a breakthrough month for playwright Anthony Neilson. The opening of The Wonderful World Of Dissocia at the Royal Court marked Neilson’s first return to London in four years, following the poor reception of his play The Lying Kind. Dissocia dispelled those memories, and now, just eight months later, Neilson is back, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Matthew Amer met the writer/director.
Neilson’s new piece, God In Ruins, runs at the Soho theatre this Christmas, and will become the third of his plays, following The Lying Kind and The Night Before Christmas, to reference the festive season. His inspiration this time around has come from the old seasonal favourite A Christmas Carol. “It’s a kind of quite lateral adaptation,” he explains over a cup of decaf coffee, “but it’s not like Scrooged or something, it’s not a contemporary updating. It’s about all that might mean, what is the modern equivalent of a miser. To be standing up there saying Christmas is a lot of sh*t, you’re more likely to get cheered than booed, because most people think it’s a lot of sh*t because it’s so over commercialised. So it’s about what kind of character do we find objectionable now, what are the equivalent of these things.”
Fans of Dickensian fare beware. Though Neilson doesn’t give away the exact plot of the tale, there is talk of a headless doll concealing something other than mince pies. “It’s got a bit of an edge to it,” Neilson smiles, “but it’s ultimately hopeful. I don’t want to do anything too wrist-slittingly depressing, you know.”
The reason Neilson can’t give away more than this, is that the script, when we meet, is not yet finished. His way of working is different to almost all other theatre practitioners, in that he starts with a blank page, and uses his experiences with the cast to drive his work forward. This has led to comparisons with Mike Leigh, though where Leigh’s plays grow out of improvisation, Neilson’s do not. For him the actors’ influence “isn’t direct; they suggest things that suggest things. The very fact of them being there and being who they are can influence what the piece is.” It is, we decide, a type of people-specific theatre.
"If you’re going to just slag stuff off then you’ll get the theatre you deserve"
Usually Neilson would take all of four or five weeks to create a new piece, the adrenalin of the deadline providing motivation, so the luxury of 19 weeks to create this RSC commission has been a dubious honour. Though he is working with a brand new cast of 11 men – normally Neilson would work with actors he knows, adding maybe one or two new faces to a cast – and the extra time was beneficial for learning their strengths and weaknesses, rapidly approaching press night has come as a welcome pressure. “It lights a fire under you a bit more,” he says, “so it’s good in that respect. That’s more how I work, much more in the heat of the moment really. If you’ve got too long to consider stuff you can get too pernickety and start changing everything.”
It is somewhat strange to see Anthony Neilson’s name in the same sentence as the Royal Shakespeare Company. The 40-year-old dramatist has a reputation, built on being a leader within the ‘In-Yer-Face’ movement of theatre that also included Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, for being somewhat of a rebel. Previous shows have included scenes of defecation and violence to make the most unshockable audience go weak at the knees. As such, his work was not automatically associated with theatre’s establishment. Yet these days he is working with both the RSC and the National. “I don’t think I’ve compromised myself to be in that situation,” Neilson argues, “but you do begin to wonder, maybe you’re the safe edge, or something.” Quite how much of a rebel Neilson can truly be when he followed both his parents into the industry is also a point worth questioning.
“It’s marketing, frankly,” he says of his reputation as a shocking playwright, “and I’m a realist about the business of theatre. We can’t compete with the advertising budgets the TV stations have or movies have. I don’t do shows with celebrities in them generally, so what’s going to get people in? If a few people come on the basis of me being whatever… I can’t really get too worked up about that. I don’t think it’s particularly accurate, but I’m not going to pretend I’m blackly outraged and affronted by it, this terribly diminution of my range or something.”
Before this year, Neilson’s work was last seen in London during the 2002/3 festive season, when his farce The Lying Kind was staged at the Royal Court. It was a production that was not as well received as he would have hoped. This led to a four year hiatus from the London stage, and a well-documented spat with the Royal Court and its then Artistic Director Ian Rickson. “I did it in a way that I didn’t really want to do it because they wouldn’t let me work in the way I wanted to work,” he says of creating The Lying Kind, “and then when it failed they completely abandoned me and turned their back. I just think, for a new writing theatre, I don’t think you should abandon your writers when they try and do stuff. I was just dead in the water for four years due to all of that.”
Softly spoken though Neilson may be, and his volume may have something to do with the headache he is currently nursing, he does not hold back his views. Rickson, though he might be “an alright guy”, is probably not high on Neilson’s Christmas card list. “I didn’t think he had any vision for the Court really,” Neilson continues. “I think it was just a visionless time. It annoyed me to see that theatre squandered in that way.”
There also won’t be many critics receiving season’s greetings from Neilson: “Constructive criticism is one thing; if you’re going to just slag stuff off then you’ll get the theatre you deserve, you’ll get boring sh*t and your punishment will be to f***ing sit through it, because you’ll sit through it more than everybody else.”
"I don’t want to see theatre just become an old man’s game"
Though he is vehement and totally committed in his views, his calm voice never raises to accentuate his point, even in this Clapham pub where he is competing with a backing score of soul music and the constant sound of hammering. “There are some of them that are just terrible. I see the personal effects of it. I see people really psychologically hurt and ruined. I’m not just talking about myself; I have been hurt but I can take it, I’m fairly hardened to that. It’s quite difficult when your friends and people you love and care about work in this industry and you see really unnecessarily cruel and unpleasant things written about them, and you see them really suffer for it psychologically.”
All that said, Neilson understand that a critic’s job is not an easy one – “you can’t be biased, you can’t be prejudiced, you have to have an entirely open mind, you have to be constructive, you have to be as good at writing about good shows as about bad ones, you have to be above ego” – and that the best way forward for theatre would be for the two parties, practitioners and critics, to work together; they are, after all, both aiming for the same goal, high quality theatre.
The future of the theatre is clearly close to Neilson’s heart. Throughout the interview he returns to suggestions about the way forward, about what theatre could and should be doing. He has in the past been fairly outspoken on the subject and the fact that he is now being embraced by the establishment is not going to stop him being at the vanguard, pushing the boundaries and trying to drive theatre into the 21st century. In fact, it probably places him in the pivotal position to make a difference.
“I don’t want to see theatre just become an old man’s game,” he says. “If we’re actually moving towards interactivity, theatre actually should be doing better in that situation than it is. Unfortunately it’s surrounded by this caricature either of terrible intellectual snobbery or of effeminacy. That’s a real tragedy because when theatre works really well it’s brilliant.”
“I think we can see that there is more of an embracing of people who have previously been seen as performance art moving into the mainstream, more devised shows coming in,” Neilson says, discussing what the future of theatre could hold. “I also think that the very nature of narrative is beginning to change and that we’ll soon have to redefine what we call a well-made play. I think we’re much more tangential in our thinking now. People will be more accepting of changes in tone. More lateral ways of telling stories will become more mainstream. Things might not have to be resolved in quite the same way as they used to be, the flow of them will become different. The ability to shift between inner states and outer states and timeframes, I think, will become much more sophisticated.”
It is interesting that at a time when other forms of entertainment are being accused of dumbing down in an attempt to appeal to everyone, Neilson thinks that theatre will become more sophisticated. This sophistication, however, should not be seen as a barrier: “I think you can be formally interesting and people have no problem with it. There’s this idea that you have to dumb down in order to reach audiences. It’s a lot of bulls**t. There should be simplicity in what you do that works across the board, but the only things that people don’t get are when people get really allusive to other works of art that people haven’t seen. But I don’t get most of that either. If something’s good there’s no reason it shouldn’t appeal across the board to whatever background of people. I just think it’s pretentious and self-defeating and lazy, in a way, to not appeal to everybody on some level, and that doesn’t mean compromising your material.”
All this talk of new ways of telling stories and narrative structures proves an exciting taste of what Neilson has in store both with, and following, God In Ruins. His ability to create new, unusual pieces of theatre, rather than his tendency for the shocking, is what has kept him at the head of the game for decades. So his next work, again for the Royal Court, could surprise people once more, but for different reasons. “I think I might actually just do my traditional Tennessee Williams play to see if I can do it, or to prove that I can do it… you’ve got to understand those structures before you start pissing around with them.”
God In Ruins runs at the Soho from 29 November to 5 January.