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“Anthony Neilson”, the biography in his 1998 collection of plays proudly proclaims, “has been thrown out of, banned from and ostracised by some of the country’s foremost institutions; also, the Hampstead Theatre.” Since 2002, he could have added another theatre to this list: the Royal Court in London. It was there that he did his dark Christmas farce The Lying Kind. However, after it was savaged by critics, he suddenly found the doors both there and everywhere else in London’s
theatreland slamming in his face.
But now they are beginning, slowly, to creak open again. Late last year, a new play that Neilson is developing called The Menu was given a scratch performance at the National Theatre. And this week will see him return to the Royal Court as part of new artistic director Dominic Cooke’s opening season, with The Wonderful World of Dissocia, which, like almost all of his work, Neilson both wrote and directed.
Not that he is cosying up to the theatrical establishment. In a Guardian article last week he blasted theatres for boring audiences with plays that subordinate story to the analysis of ideas. What they should be offering, he wrote, is the “spectacle of imagination in flight”.
That sets a high standard for Wednesday’s opening, although the omens are good that Dissocia will hit the mark. The play, a kind of Alice in Wonderland for the Prozac generation, was a hit at the 2004 Edinburgh International Festival, winning a host of awards including best show, best director and best actress. It tells the story of Lisa, a woman who, in a temporal accident that occurs on a flight from New York to London, loses an hour of her life. To get it back she has to go on a quest to the strange land of Dissocia – a place where the impossible happens in Technicolor. Yet this cosy world is not what it seems, and we soon discover that the piece is shot through with personal tragedy.
Neilson is cautious not to give too much away about what happens in the play. But he says it was inspired by the problems that several people close to him had had with mental illness. One particularly frustrating aspect of these experiences, he says, was that “there was often a great reluctance on their part to take their medication”. This fascinated and disturbed him, and so he decided to try and tackle it on stage. “A lot of plays that address mental health,” he says, “tend to do so from the outside. They tend to have a character that is outside of the situation, with whom the audience can easily identify. This gives a more external and social view of what’s happening. But I wanted to do something a bit more internalised, I wanted a structure that would allow us to really give an audience an approximation of an understanding of what the lure of not taking medication is, what the lure of a manic state is.”
What the piece is trying to do, he says, is “to encapsulate the kind of feelings one would have if one were ill in that way: the colour, the imaginative leaps, the excitement and the scariness of it”. But he is keen to point out that his purpose is not to glamorise mental illness. “In most of the cases I’ve known where people have been psychiatrically ill, they benefit from the medication and the treatment – their lives become manageable.”
Neilson is aware of the difficulty inherent in this task. He points out that Christine Entwisle, the actress playing Lisa, has described the play as being about “sensation versus numbness”. “Its difficult,” he adds, “when one is showing both the problem and the cure, to not tip things one way or the other . . . it’s very hard when you’re presented with sensation, to then favour numbness on some level.”
This fascination with exploring the topography of the human psyche is not a new element of Neilson’s work. His early plays, such as Normal, which told the story of the Düsseldorf ripper Peter Kürten, and Penetrator, about the return home of a psychologically traumatised soldier, are good examples of this. In the past, he says, he tended to approach these subjects from an
external point of view, but now he is becoming increasingly interested in “theatricalising” an individual’s internal life.
His most recent play, Realism, which premiered at last year’s Edinburgh International Festival, takes this even further than Dissocia. It depicts a “normal” day in the life of a “normal” man. Yet as this character slobs around in boxer shorts in his flat, his whole inner life – his fantasies and broken thoughts – appears on stage, forming a surreal latticework as it combines with the real events around him. “It gives you a tremendous amount of freedom when you start paying as much attention to the interior as well as the exterior,” he argues, “because you can kind of go anywhere. The nice thing about both Dissocia and Realism is that you are only limited by the boundaries of where a person’s mind can go. So everything is there, you can employ anything from some fairly low humour to songs and dances. Any kind of theatrical element that you want to bring into it, you can bring into it.”
This desire to use as many different theatrical elements as possible is a core part of Neilson’s aesthetic, and one of the themes of last week’s diatribe. “I feel increasingly now that theatre – the kind of heavily text-based theatre you would see at a place like the Royal Court generally – really needs to break out of some of the strictures it’s under.” It’s easy, he says, for practitioners and critics to become convinced that the theatre is in quite good health. But to take a wider view, “it’s meaningless to 95 per cent of the population of this country.”
There is a prevailing view, he argues, held by a number of mainstream critics, that the writer should have “a thesis which is then proved or disproved over the course of a show”. This is anathema to Neilson. “I’m much more interested in creating a more visceral feeling in an audience. I want people to feel a show as much as think about it. I want them to go somewhere they haven’t gone before.”
Despite his calm demeanour, Neilson obviously feels that he has a great deal riding on the success of Dissocia’s London run. The disastrous critical response that The Lying Kind received in 2002, and the subsequent disappearance of further offers of work left him with a sense of “complete abandonment”. “If Dissocia gets slaughtered too, then I could be in trouble,” he remarks, adding: “it could be the end of my career, or it could open up a whole load of new doors”.
Given the plaudits that it has earned in Edinburgh, a slaughtering seems unlikely. And perhaps his show can be the one to demonstrate to London’s theatre bosses that Neilson’s work, with all its abrasive eloquence, deserves a second chance to flourish in the world’s theatre capital.
‘The Wonderful World of Dissocia’ is at the Royal Court, London, from March 28 to April 21. Tel20 7565 5000