Let’s start at the beginning. Anthony Nielson’s latest work is, the Royal Court website tells us with succinct authority, “a new play about stories”. There’s also an image: a line with a break and the provocative words “form is dead”. And that’s it. The reason for the scant details is partly down to Nielson’s method – the play was written during rehearsals, building on a process of daily workshopping and improvisation with the cast – but it’s also sort of fitting. All the best stories know not to give too much away.
Another beginning. To one side of a sleek white design jewelled with blinking blue LEDs – Apple’s smooth, clean lines extended across an entire theatre set – a screen hosts a projected cave painting. If we’re to believe the authoritatively intoned description of the voiceover, this is the earliest example of human narrative: just a man, a bison and a spear. The implication is of a struggle, though whether man or bison or neither is killed is unclear. The presence or absence of death is important, the voiceover tells us. Without death, there’s no consequence. Without consequence, there’s no narrative; only suspended struggle.
Narrative plays out in that zone of suspended struggle. It’s a story – or, more accurately, a web of interconnecting, overlapping stories – that must continue at all costs, but the consequence it’s reaching towards is always just out of grasp. The spliced-up narratives themselves range from the banal to the bizarre, often in an almost soap opera vein. A paranoid actor keeps being slipped mysterious photos of arseholes; a grieving mother drags around a petition, pathetically begging passersby to sign; a young woman aggressively seeks out her soulmate, while another casually kills her best friend. Just as the opening voiceover is helplessly drawn to creating a story from a few marks on the wall of a cave, we as an audience are left to do what we do best: connect the dots.
As well as making connections, the audience is required to engage in a process of choice, picking out some elements and discarding others. While certain scenes are tightly focused, isolating a monologue or a video (of which there are many, bursting onto the screen throughout the piece), at other times the production relies on a technique of bombardment. The first “scene” proper, for example, works on a collage principle, pasting on layer after layer as one conversation overlaps with another, more and more performers entering the space until all we can make out is a fuzzy cacophony of noise, punctuated by the odd audible word or sentence. At which point, in a puff of dry ice, Zawe Ashton bursts into a sudden, off-key rendition of David Bowie’s ‘Where Are We Now?’ This pretty much sets the tone.
The crowded confusion sounds bewildering, but the ease with which we navigate this flood of theatrical stimuli is just as striking as its over-abundance. Essentially it’s just a staged manifestation of digital noise, noise that we’re now adept at filtering. If the formal experimentation of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information riffed on one facet of modern experience – the quickfire onslaught of information in the digital age – then Narrative is its exploded, densely networked extension. At times it feels as though it’s occupying the internet; interruptions pop into view, scenes flip from window to window, ad-speak is constantly intruding – there’s even a cheeky nod to the ubiquity of the cat video. It’s theatre for the multi-tab generation.
And yet this is more than just a meditation on the ways that digital technology has rewired our thought and behaviour. As signalled by the opening lecture on cave art and the recurring motif of the bison throughout, these stories we tell are an integral part of our existence, stretching right back to our earliest origins. Narrative is wired into our cultural DNA. Looking not quite so far back, the play is also engaged in a tense dialogue with the particular way in which we tell stories on stage, demonstrating a deep understanding and cutting critique of the often shallow techniques of drama. The small, broken-off splinters of plot that we are given concern themselves with the sort of domestic scenes we are used to seeing represented on stage, particularly at the Royal Court, occasionally marked by the violent caesura of a “dramatic” incident. Often these vignettes are haunted by a kind of narrative dissatisfaction, or they simply don’t work, requiring another surreal interruption to rupture their bland surface. Our old stories are broken.
It’s worth pausing briefly here to also consider Nielson’s process. While he remains very much a writer, his writing happens alongside rehearsals; a new draft gets frantically written each night and brought in the next day to rehearse and improvise around with the actors, prompting yet more re-writes based on the outcome. As I understand it, any improvisation that takes place during this process is very much within the piece that Nielson is already writing, rather than a more free-form method of devising from scratch. It’s a process of generating, gathering and discarding that is particularly apt here, mirroring the way that we refine and retell our own stories, yet always within the narrative limits that our culture has schooled us in and always with reference to the narrative tropes that precede us – storytelling from the inside. In our postmodern, post-structuralist world, truly original narratives are no longer thinkable, but the linear stories we are accustomed to telling are no longer adequate. The answer, as Nielson proposes, is a structure that deconstructs from within, disruptively playing with the cultural material and narrative constructs that we can never quite get outside of.
Just say it and it will be true.
Much like Martin Crimp’s cutting attack on the cult of the personality in In the Republic of Happiness, the modern focus on the individual keeps rearing its head. Mirrors are everywhere, both in the text and dotted around Garance Marneur’s design, most strikingly as a scattering of reflective fragments in a shallow pool of water; in place of costume, the actors wear T-shirts adorned with photos of their younger selves, a statement of identity and personal narrative sitting against their skin. Just as Crimp’s characters stubbornly insist upon their narrative autonomy – “I write the script of my own life” – here the ability to tell one’s own story is depicted as central to contemporary experience. While the situations are often distorted into mad extremes, the very human impulses that drive them are wincingly familiar. We’re always spinning stories, always telling lies to others and ourselves, always making up shit.
The other purpose of telling stories, as Nielson reminds us, is to insulate ourselves from our own mortality. In a ridiculous attempt to divert a break-up – one of many amusing moments in what is often a viciously funny play – one character petitions her indifferent lover with the uncompromisingly bleak observation that “we’re going to die”. Spoken out loud, particularly in Ashton’s gloriously melodramatic tones, it sounds almost laughable, that truth that we all fight against. We will all die. But it also prompts the unsettling realisation that we’re all constantly pretending we won’t. That’s what all this noise really is: distraction.
Another distraction, another mirror, another classic narrative device, is romance. Neilson’s characters are unremittingly obsessed with love. Or, rather, an idea of love; “the big love thing that they fill our heads with”. They’re all looking for “The One”. They’re looking for “it”. They’re looking for their soulmate, the person they’re meant to be with – and when they know, they’ll know.
Whether we’re listening in on a lovers’ row – and they all sound the same – or a conversation between gossiping best friends, the dialogue trills to the echo of a hundred pulped Valentine’s Day cards, channelling the ghost of every second-rate romcom and soap opera romance. This is a world where idealised love is a consumer item, where our romantic relationships are snatched out of our grasp and sold back to us at a price. Stories are stolen and priced-up in the same way, co-opted into advertising (an industry to which the play makes repeated references). Much as Ashton’s soulmate-hunting young woman is resolute in her belief that there is an ideal love waiting for her, we are fed a feeling of entitlement to perfect happiness, but always at a cost.
It’s also no mistake that each of the individuals we encounter is, in their own way, in the business of selling us falsehoods. Whether perpetuating the Hollywood dream of overnight fame, battering us with empty advertising slogans, or telling a lie that they themselves believe in, the characters depend upon peddling untruths – just as the success of the performers beneath, the layers of real and fictional identity messily overlapping, is predicated on creating a fiction.
The last, dissolving vestiges of narrative are desperately clung to, much as the members of Forced Entertainment propel The Coming Storm stubbornly forward with story after story after story. Particularly with the 24-hour epic of Quizoola still seared on the collective memory, Forced Entertainment and their stretching and implosion of the narrative form feels like an apt reference point. There’s the same frenzied impulse to keep going no matter what, the conviction that the show – and the stories – must go on. This work also shares a certain sense of inbuilt failure. Alongside the stories that fall flat on their face or get rudely truncated, the theatrical event itself is deliberately balanced on the point of falling to pieces; as actors refer to one another by their actual names and occasionally read directly from hand-held scripts, the illusion of theatre is always brittle, if not completely smashed.
In negotiating these blurred lines and weaving between the many different fragments of narrative and identity, the cast work brilliantly with the material they’ve been given and had a hand in crafting. There’s a lot of fun to be had with the text that Nielson has produced and the atmosphere is consistently playful, stretching and pushing at its theatrical confines. Ashton, already mentioned, turns in a dazzling comic performance, at once awkward, manipulative and somehow endearing, while the increasingly zany bewilderment of Imogen Doel’s clumsy murderer and Barnaby Power’s despair-drenched audition provide some of the production’s most bleakly hilarious moments.
This bit coming up is the future.
Rather than finishing at the end, I want to conclude by looking both forwards and backwards. I wonder – and here I’m connecting the dots – whether Narrative might join Love and Information and In the Republic of Happiness in a sort of loose trilogy on modern life. As well as sharing many thematic preoccupations, all three attempt to answer the demand, repeatedly echoed by Nielson, for a new dramatic structure, a dramaturgy that responds to a rapidly changing world and digitally wired ways of thinking. As Nielson put it in a recent interview with Matt Trueman: “Plays don’t feel like they’re modern […] 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.”
Interestingly, Dan Hutton suggests that Nielson’s attempt to write work that responds to this experience of modern life “throws into light questions of what we class as ‘written’ text”, occupying a space somewhere between writers’ theatre (the traditional preserve of the Royal Court) and directors’ theatre. Based on the production itself and Nielson’s distinctive workshop method of playwriting, it’s a perfectly reasonable suggestion, and one with exciting implications, hinting at the imminent breakdown of that pesky, persistent barrier between “text-based” and “non-text-based” theatre. At last week’s Royal Court press briefing, however, I was a little surprised to hear Nielson speak approvingly of the “strong authorial grip” and firmly position himself in the lineage of text-based theatre. His words were scribbled in my notebook with a “hmm” and a question mark.
But, aside from my own objections to the notion of authorship in theatre, there is perhaps something fitting about Nielson’s positioning within the lineage of which the Royal Court is so proud. As Narrative itself suggests, we can never fully dissociate ourselves from existing narrative structures. It’s also interesting – and promising for the future output of the Royal Court – that new artistic director Vicky Featherstone has immediately enlisted Nielson to work with a group of writers on new and unconventional methods of playwriting, encouraging ways of working that both continue in the vein of the Royal Court’s writer-led tradition and reach for those forms that speak more effectively to our current moment. Contrary to that sketch on the Royal Court website, there’s rarely – if ever – a complete break; there’s just playful, subverting, disrupting reinvention of what has come before. Making mischief from within.
P.S. Tangled in the knotty mess of trying to analyse what Narrative does with stories and theatrical form, I don’t think I gave a sufficient idea of quite how hilarious the play manages to be while wrestling with all of this material. So just to be clear, it’s bloody funny.