Originally written for Exeunt.
Anthony Neilson is keen on one-word titles. Normal, Penetrator, Stitching, Realism, Relocated, Narrative. And now, his latest play at the Royal Court, Unreachable. It feels apt, given the way of working that Neilson has developed over the years. Typically, the playwright arrives on day one of rehearsals without a finished script – or any script at all – and writes during the process. Those one-word titles, vague but packed with connotations, are perfect for shows whose shape is yet to be decided on.
These plays have fragile beginnings. At the start of making Unreachable, Neilson came into rehearsals with just one solid thing: “the idea of a director obsessively pursuing this light”. Other than that, all he had was a loose idea of what the form of the piece might look like. From those scant ingredients, he and the cast have spent the past few weeks improvising, talking, questioning and – in Neilson’s case – writing.
Neilson’s process is not devising, exactly. Between rehearsals, he goes away and writes independently, often late at night or at the crack of dawn. New scenes and ideas are brought in each day for the actors to perform and explore, before the writing process starts all over again. Improvisation forms a significant part of the rehearsals, but it’s not as straightforward as the actors creating material that Neilson then simply transcribes.
“The actors have a huge impact but more by way of who they are – as performers and people – than in terms of what they create,” Neilson explains. “As many new ideas are created in down-time as when we’re actually improvising. I also allow the actors to pretty much work out their own performances, costumes etc and only intervene if I feel it’s detrimental to the central thrust of the play. This all allows me to approach the material from viewpoints very different to mine.”
I’ve seen this process in action before, during the Royal Court’s Open Court festival three years ago. Over two weeks, Neilson led a series of workshops that encouraged other writers to explore this way of working in partnership with six actors (among them Jonjo O’Neill and Richard Pyros, who have returned for Unreachable). It was largely a process of unlearning, as the playwrights let go of protectiveness and self-censorship in their writing. But it was also fascinating to see how tiny moments in improvisations or conversations in tea breaks metamorphosed into elements of the short plays produced at the end of the fortnight.
In this process, everything’s up for grabs. That’s exhilarating, but also tricky – especially for theatres with rigid production schedules. It’s tough for the rest of the creative and technical team to do their work around a relatively unknown entity, let alone for the marketing department to sell something that’s not yet been made. Plenty of independent theatre-makers work in this way, of course, but it’s a challenge to large organisations with long-established internal structures. Perhaps understandably, not many venues are willing to take the risk.
“Most theatres won’t fully agree to let me work this way,” says Neilson. “They’ll do workshops and even ‘showings’ but few will commit to just scheduling a show. Which is understandable, but difficult for me.” Fortunately, the Royal Court’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone is interested in stretching the definition of what it means to be a “writers’ theatre”, which includes more unusual commissions like Unreachable. “Without a sympathetic patron at the Court, you probably wouldn’t see much of me,” Neilson adds.
For the actors, as well, this process challenges what they’re used to. “It’s hard to shrug off years of orthodoxy,” says Neilson, “and some manage better than others.” For Unreachable, Neilson is working with performers who are mostly new to this way of working, generating some anxieties. During the morning I spend in rehearsals, nervy glances are exchanged and there is, at times, a palpable frustration at the absence of certainties. The performers are eager for answers, while Neilson wants to ask questions.
So where does this process fit? Neilson describes his method as “somewhere in between” conventional playwriting and devising practices. He wants the input of performers and the challenge and unpredictability of making the show as they go, but the idea of playwright as individual artist remains important to him. Neilson believes that theatre “benefits from a strong, singular vision”, and therefore isn’t about to relinquish the mantle of author. “That [vision] can sometimes be achieved in a devising process, if everyone’s very in tune with each other,” he adds. “But I’d imagine there’s always someone at the centre, be it a writer or director or whoever. Also, I do this to express myself. I just like to have other influences in there as well.”
At the root of all great work, Neilson suggests to me during rehearsals, is an obsession: an itch that won’t go away. That’s the root of authorship, as he sees it, and one of the reasons he holds so tightly to the idea of an individual signature. Obsession as an idea also threads through Unreachable (or so it seems when I pop into rehearsals – but then, nothing’s fixed). The protagonist, played by Matt Smith, is on a hunt for the perfect light, while the film he’s shooting is the realisation of an idea sparked many years previously. In scenes between the director and his lead actress, meanwhile, the pair compulsively rehearse emotions that they distance themselves from in everyday life. There’s something in there about voyeurism, perhaps, or the feeling of being an outsider. As ever with Neilson’s rehearsals, it’s hard to tell.
Neilson has frequently called on theatre to be less boring. Writing in the Guardian in 2007, he declared that “boring an audience is the one true sin in theatre”. The antidote to boredom, he’s suggested, is a sense of liveness and theatricality, which much theatre too often neglects. The riskiness and responsiveness of Neilson’s process keeps that liveness in sight – not to mention creating the very real possibility that come opening night the play will be unfinished. It’s seat-of-the-pants stuff, for sure, and that always comes with the potential for failure. Rarely, though, can it be accused of being boring.