Sheltering from the rain outside the Royal Court Theatre, Anthony Neilson pockets his electronic cigarette and replaces it with an extra-long Superking. “You now know more about what we’re doing than anyone else in the Royal Court,” he exhales, “including the artistic director.” I’ve been watching rehearsals for less than 90 minutes.
In fact, artistic director Dominic Cooke only got his first glimpse of the play at Friday night’s first preview. Three weeks ago, it didn’t even have a title. All the theatre’s marketing team had to go on was a poem explaining why: “Because I want to surprise myself / Because I want to surprise you,” it concluded. “That’s why.”
Commission Neilson to write a play and you never know what you’re going to get. He starts rehearsals with a cast but no script. No plot. No characters. “Nothing much,” as he puts it. “A couple of ideas.”
What’s certain is that it will be distinctive. Often credited as the progenitor of In-Yer-Face theatre, Neilson’s early plays such as The Censor, about a pornography licenser, were among the most vehement of the 1990s. One, Stitching, recently fell foul of the censors in Malta and was banned outright. In the past decade, however, his focus has shifted to formal invention and his work often infuses reality with subjective imaginings. The Wonderful World of Dissocia, which premiered at the 2004 Edinburgh International Festival before productions in Chicago and Sydney, is a psychedelic fantasia build around dissociative disorder, while Realism (2006) shows one man’s boxers-and-sofa day shot through with his depressive fantasies: a talking washing-machine, a lesbian porn sequence in his toilet. Two years ago, he turned out Get Santa!, an unruly kids’ Christmas show, before directing a controversial RSC revival of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade.
But it’s his singular process in the theatre that imposes uncertainty. For six weeks – the first two spent mostly talking – the 46-year-old Scot writes by night and rehearses by day. Each morning, the cast arrive to a new draft, often radically different to yesterday’s script. “You have to give up any connection or commitment,” says cast-member Zawe Ashton. “Anything could disappear tomorrow.”
“Very few people let me work like this,” Neilson explains – and it’s not hard to see why. With a fortnight to go, set designs have only just been submitted. Nick Powell is starting to compose a soundtrack and Neilson is directing on an hour’s sleep. “It’s not a morning play. It’s a two or three o’clock in the morning play,” he says.
“I have a particularly difficult time just sitting by myself and writing. If I’m not careful, I get very anal and perfectionist. The pressure of this schedule forces me to circumvent that inbuilt censorship. It allows me to think outside of my own box.”
Neilson stumbled on the technique by chance. In the early 1990s, taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe, he still hadn’t written his ending when rehearsals began. “The next time, I’d finished even less. I never thought, ‘Oh, I must find a different way of doing it.’”
Yet Neilson swears by this method. “What often happens is writers have an idea, get a commission and months later end up saddled with an intellectual idea that seemed precious at the time, the memory of an excitement, even though the world has moved on. Mine feels like a live process.”
This time that involves an attempt to rework theatre for the information age. If, as is often claimed, our neurological processes have changed, Neilson argues that our theatre hasn’t kept pace. “Plays don’t feel like they’re modern,” he says. “That idea of dramatic unity is becoming less relevant. People are sophisticated enough to make quite large leaps of cognition from small amounts of information.”
Narrative – the title eventually settled on – will certainly demand that. It’s not beginning-middle-end stuff. Characters aren’t fully introduced. Their stories just start, leaving you to deduce their relationships. Some stories just stop; characters intrude and disappear. Just as in life, actually. Imagine watching a single episode of a soap opera – only stripped of primetime sensibilities.
Despite this it’s not outrageously obscure. “It’s got to work,” Neilson insists. “It’s about finding another mainstream form; one that fits the modern age. It’s not about pushing taboos. It’s subtler than that. It’s about telling clearly understandable stories in a modular form.” Narrative surfing, he calls it. “It might be the modern form of epic theatre.”
It’s not just a story about stories, though. The form makes it hard to summarise, but Narrative diagnoses a peculiar modern restlessness: an actor achieves overnight fame, a relationship implodes, a young woman commits a crime on impulse. Lives change instantaneously, slates are wiped clean, and, hanging over everything, is the sudden full-stop of death. Live 80 years at this pace, Neilson says, and you get several lives for the price of one. Multiple marriages. Multiple careers. Multiple identities.
The son of two Scottish actors, Neilson grew up in rehearsal rooms and was expelled from drama school in Wales. Later, winning a BBC young writers’ competition gave his career impetus and, in 1991, he burst into public consciousness at the Edinburgh Fringe with Normal, an expressionist electric shock of a play about a German serial killer. Other plays followed suit as the In-Yer-Face generation roared on. “There was no we,” he remembers now, “there was just a feeling in the air. A feeling that theatre had become very safe and wasn’t reflecting the viscerality and violence of the world.”
More than 20 plays later, in his mid-40s, his concern is that the medium is once again returning to conservatism, though this time formally. “Part of the impetus for [Narrative] was younger playwrights. I’m a little disappointed that they’re not being more adventurous.” Middle-aged artists often are, but Neilson blames systematic development schemes that tend towards ubiquity: “They’re being rewarded for writing in old-fashioned idioms and not being vulgar or deliberately innovative.”
For him, theatre’s predisposition to be “incredibly backward-looking” leaves it easily mocked. “There’s that gag on The Simpsons: ‘I’ve seen plays more boring than this. Plays!’”
He quotes Stanley Kubrick, distinguishing between good and interesting. “There’s a lot of good, but there’s not a lot of interesting. If I’m going all the way to the theatre, paying those prices and sitting with all those other human beings, I want better than good. I want interesting.”
The enemy, as he sees it, is escapism: “What’s bad is the confusion of that with the truth. It’s a lie we’re feeding back to the public about life, about themselves, and you can lie by omission as well. That’s dishonest. We’re supposed to be truthful.”
He is, as director Dominic Dromgoole has said, “a truly moral writer”: “You can hear behind his work the wish that the world was all roses, blue skies and the missionary position, but it isn’t and it grieves him.”
Neilson’s process means that you can’t bank on good, but interesting is a dead-cert.
‘Narrative’, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court Theatre, London, until May 4. www.royalcourttheatre.com