tue 17/05/2022

Narrative, Royal Court Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Narrative, Royal Court Theatre

Narrative, Royal Court Theatre

A newly devised play by the wild man of British theatre gets mired in its own inconsequentiality

Feeling horny? Imogen Doel in ‘Narrative’ Tristram Kenton

Anthony Neilson is the wild man of new writing. However, this reputation, which has been provoked by shock-fests such as Penetrator (1993) and Stitching (2002), belies the fact that some of his best work, such as The Wonderful World of Dissocia (2004), exudes a warm humanity and offbeat humour. But perhaps the most significant thing about some of his recent work has been his concern with process.

Instead of writing a play and then handing it over to a director and actors, Neilson creates his stories in rehearsal. So his latest 110-minute piece, Narrative, began life with the bald title of A New Play by Anthony Neilson. During the rehearsal period, Neilson took on the role of director and — aided by the cast — created a play about storytelling and life choices. But is it any good?

None of these stories develops in a satisfying way

The evening starts off with great promise. A scene from a cave painting at Lascaux is projected: it shows a wounded bison butting a man. This poses a problem of interpretation: if the man is meant to be dead, then the story is Man Wounds Bison, Bison Kills Man. But if the man is not meant to be dead, then there is no story, only the image of a struggle.

Neilson takes this fascinating insight into storytelling and presents a series of stories, none of which has a proper ending: one couple is breaking up, a mother campaigns against a new drug that she believes is responsible for the suicide of her son David, a young woman kills her best friend in a random knife attack, an actor lands a huge Hollywood role as Elastic-man, to the chagrin of his less successful friend. But he’s troubled because he has been handed a photograph of an arsehole — and he doesn’t know who’s responsible!

But none of these stories develops in a satisfying way, and they are all subverted by their own imploding lack of meaning. Likewise, the characters are media folk who move in the world of fiction — they are actors, directors, script writers, PR people — and they experience life as unpredictable and often meaningless. They are insecure; they need therapy.

Narrative uses lots of storytelling devices: we see rehearsals for an advert for a computer Foot Mouse, songs, snatches of arguments between friends or lovers, a poem, a questionnaire, odd conversations, direct address to the audience and small mini-scenes. There is a joke about YouTube and another about Skype; there are metaphoric tales and gradually the cast don bison horns.

Yet, sadly, there’s a strong sense of inconsequentiality in this anti-play. The deliberate fragmentation of the narrative and the mash-ups of the storylines become gradually more and more draining. Slowly but surely, I felt my will to live start to ebb away. Of course, there are some humorous gems buried in the dross and these cast bright beams in the gloom. But the questions about life that the piece raises are buried in the process that created them.

As the troubled and spoilt characters, the ensemble cast (pictured above) spend much of the performance wearing T-shirts with pictures of themselves as children, showing how our lives are stories in which we change but remain the same. But despite the best efforts of Zawe Ashton, Imogen Doel, Brian Doherty, Christine Entwisle, Barnaby Power, Oliver Rix and Sophie Ross, Narrative remains more of a good idea than a production that repays intense interest.

Slowly but surely, I felt my will to live start to ebb away


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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I've waited a long time for the Neilson family saga to give birth to a new sibling. Anthony Neilson, in his current creation for The Royal Court, gives us a Narrative on the Realism of The Wonderful World of Dissocia. If you read Narrative with the complex and magical combination of his earlier two plays, its value and resonance comes to life with a tragic quality. The fear of death, the misunderstood and never-ending stories of our complex lives; the pains, the passion and power of love, that fails to understand the mental illness that now hides in one of each four of us. I too, a year ago, became one of those statistics, drowning in a silent deep depression, almost losing my life to a tsunami of tragedy that invisibly stirs up inside. Like Narrative’s protagonists, I was manic, obsessive, compulsive and lost. Clutching to anyone and everyone after a few weeks of attention; submitting their kind souls to a relentless rollercoaster of emotional carnage. Desperate for a message or meaning to move on in life, far beyond the boxes of Deal or No Deal! Identifying completely with the Realism of Stuart’s talking cat Galloway, yearning for a visit from Lisa’s Dissocian Polar Bear, with his comforting lamenting lullaby. My inner and outer wonderful worlds were a distant dissocial dream. In our fragmented and disjointed lives, we often try to end our story, before we can truly understand it. Unconsciously creating our own hell, through guilt or gluttony. The ego and negativity we see staring back from the webcam screen or in shattered mirrors lasts much longer than the supposed seven years. A lifetime in some cases. I'll never forget my first Neilson play. It had such an amazing effect on me, I was hooked. The complete package of Buether’s box sets, Powell’s poignant specific sounds and Chahine’s shimmering empathic enlightenment that adds the sparkle and magic, to Neilson’s tragically funny thoughts. In Narrative, Marneur’s sparse spaced set of white washed walls and shattered mirrors, reflect our empty shattered lives, as we watch still waters polluted by piss and blood. Even the younger reflected innocent faces, underline the older egos. Completely washed away in the finale, by the filthy waters of life, leaving a clean line of enlightened innocence. Critiqued for its disjointed and frustratingly unfinished nature, Narrative’s beauty for me, hides in the reality of our own heaven or hell. Be that hidden, in the deep Stillwater of our thoughts or in the frantic rush of our daily lives. I certainly related my narrative to the realism of these disjointed Dissocial discords. The London Bus analogy is well worth the fare in itself! Art truly does reflect life, and in his own words, may we shower Neilson in feathers for those who ‘don’t get to finish their story’.

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