Initially announced as A New Play By Anthony Neilson before being assigned the no less illuminating title Narrative, the latest offering from the Royal Court theatre’s Olivier Award-nominated Jerwood Theatre Upstairs has until now been shrouded in mystery.
It is now apparent that the previous lack of synopsis was probably down to the fact it is almost impossible to put into words what happens on stage during the 110 minute production. There is no linear narrative as such – though some of the characters’ stories do develop and move forward – but instead we are confronted with snapshots of situations with recurring themes; fragmented like the shattered mirror in Garance Marneur’s set but ultimately connected by the water in which the pieces are laid.
The point Neilson seems to be getting at is that time moves on and everyone is powerless to it, a notion introduced by the projection of a cave painting at the beginning of the play, in which a man and a bison are pictured in a struggle for power.
The actors, all of whom use their own names for the production, wear white t-shirts adorned with photographs – presumably their younger selves – printed on the front, signifying the passage of time and their increasing progression towards death. Some characters’ ends come prematurely, others live to see out the play, but the image of a bison lingers as a constant reminder of the struggle for life against time’s relentlessness.
Among the characters are a man who has been handed a picture of an unsightly orifice, a hyperventilating woman who is insecure about her relationships, a young woman who accidentally stabs her best friend, an aspiring actor who is trying to break into the industry by starring in an embarrassing advert for a foot-operated mouse and a grieving mother whose son committed suicide as a consequence of taking acne medication.
There are arresting performances from the seven strong-cast. Imogen Doel’s disturbing portrayal of a woman’s nervous breakdown sees her shake with pain at her inability to articulate sentences, Zawe Ashton morphs from an unstable and clingy girlfriend to a confident PR executive, Christine Entwisle gives a haunting performance as the mother who embarks on a campaign to get a dangerous drug banned in the UK and Oliver Rix adds humour as the man who wins the lead role in Elastic Man but remains troubled by the image of an anus.
This is a show that sticks in your head. No matter what your initial opinion of Neilson’s new play, over the hours – and perhaps days – that follow, your mind replays its peculiar scenes, searching for answers to the thought-provoking questions posed at the play’s conclusion.