“Narrative” by Anthony Neilson

at the Royal Court Theatre, Saturday 20th April 2013

Anthony Neilson’s Narrative is a world of mirrors. Physically, they sit on worktops and are stuck to small pillars whilst the text is riddled with references to them. The most important ones, however, are those in a small shallow pond downstage left, shattered and of various sizes, light bouncing off the dual reflective surfaces of the glass and the water. These mirrors symbolise Nielson’s interrogation of the difficulties and problems which arise when we try to use art to directly mirror life. Though a full-length mirror may demonstrate an image of what life is, it doesn’t offer us an honest and full representation of the complexities of life. Far better, then, to look to fragmented pieces of glass; in Narrative, that is exactly what Nielson does.

The first few moments of the ‘workshopped’ piece (more on that shortly) set the tone for the next 100-odd minutes. After a short voice-over about the first recorded instance of “narrative art”, a woman approaches a man with an envelope. Soon, a couple enter mid-argument, overlapping the action already occurring. Shortly, a cacophony of noise is taking place, at which point Zawe Ashton enters loudly singing Bowie’s “Where Are We Now?” off-key, accompanied by a projected message: “David Bowie’s new album is out now. Download it from iTunes”.

The intertextuality, irreverence and multiple voices of these five minutes give us a taste of what is to come, as actors slip in and out of ‘character’ and inhabit the space between ‘performance’ and ‘reality’. The focus of the ‘main’ storyline – a young actor is handed a picture of a random person’s arsehole before becoming a Hollywood star in Elastic Man – also gives an indication of Nielson’s feelings about ‘conventional’ narratives. The use of Bowie is important here, demonstrative as he is of a man who cannot be biographied, utilising multiple personas and unable to be tied down.

Through use of vignettes and multiple styles, Narrative attempts to understand – or should that be parody? – the ways in which we tell stories on stage. Most of the plot-lines (though it feels perverse to call them that, seeing as they merely stand as symbols) revolve around either struggling to get a job or difficulties in a relationship, mirroring the ways in which plays (and especially the archetypal Royal Court Plays) present arguments. Sometimes, we listen in to phone calls, interviews and casual conversations, whilst elsewhere more abstract modes of response are pictured.

Narrative has been created through workshops with the cast, in Neilson’s trademark style (which, appallingly, I’ve only just learnt about). He rehearses by day and (re)writes by night, meaning that the shape of the piece is always shifting, resulting in a freedom and fluidity which would otherwise be dormant in a conventional ‘written’ play. The cast refer to one another by their actual names, wear t-shirts adorned with photos of their younger selves, and there is always a sense that proceedings could suddenly take an unexpected turn. Garance Marneur’s set, all white boxes and neutral spaces, supports this, and allows for the creation of a number of striking images.

Neilson’s rehearsal process seems to me to inhabit a space between writers’ theatre and directors’ theatre (though, being produced at the Royal Court, it surely errs on the side of the former). This is a play – if that’s the right word – which feels like it could only have been created through a pliable process, dealing as it does with themes of the telling of stories and how theatre presents narrative. Just like his rehearsal room, Neilson’s script is resistant to a linear interrogation and instead confronts us with the fragmentary, dislocated stories of modern life.

It’s also hugely funny, with every scene involving at least one joke or absurdity. The visual jokes range from Ashton hobbling across stage in stupidly high heels, bent over and wincing, to a seeing the aforementioned arsehole projected onto a screen. Textually, we are given such gems as the ‘Foot Mouse’ (a computer mouse you control with your foot) and Elastic Man’s catchphrase ‘Stretch Iiiiiiit’. Perhaps is says something about my character, however, that the storyline I found myself laughing at most was Christine Entwisle’s, who campaigns for the banning of a drug after the suicide of her son David. She writes a (bad) poem in support of the cause and slouches around stage pathetically asking for signatures. It’s both horrifically tragic and sumptuously comic.

There were moments, however, when I found myself feeling awkward about laughing; what if, I thought, aspects of this were real? Knowing that Neilson plays in the rehearsal room and takes home things to write, had some of these stories had come from cast and team members’ actual lives? Many of the cast play actors, and a good handful of the storylines aren’t exactly inconceivable. So in amongst all these thoughts about narrative form, we are also forced to consider the performance’s relationship to reality. If, then, Entwisle’s storyline is in some way related to real life, does this make my reaction to it cruel? Well, no, because it’s presented in such a way that it’s impossible not to snigger. But then, would it be less funny if it was real? Yes, probably.

The cast bounce off one another expertly, and clearly have a lot of fun with the material they are given. Brian Doherty downplays the character of ‘the frustrated actor’ with nuance, while Imogen Doel’s way of dealing with slaughtering her best friend is both self-aware and somewhat truthful. The two best comic turns come from Barnaby Power and Ashton herself, both of whom are pathetic yet charming.

The final monologue, analogising life as a bus-ride, is surprisingly the most cohesive and linear in the show, easy to interpret and giving a clear message, thus potentially re-framing everything that has come before. In a simple, uncluttered monologue delivered to the audience, Doherty charts the peaks and troughs of life and pulls them together in a seemingly clean, simple metaphor. At first, this analogy seems to force us to view the other stories as simpler than we thought, but in fact you soon realise this is bollocks. Life isn’t like a bus. We don’t chart out lives by where we are on the bus. It makes no sense. Because, though we may sit at the front little more frequently when we’re a child and end up at the back in our rebellious phases, we sit elsewhere just as often, and it’s these times we stray from what we are told is the norm which are the most exciting. You can’t define all of life as a bus ride. You just can’t generalise the entirety of humanity’s stories like that. So this section throws up exactly the same questions as the ones which precede it.

The Royal Court aren’t selling copies of the playtext, yet bizarrely I’ve never wanted to see one more. The play throws into light questions of what we class as ‘written’ text and also pastiches the still-current yet somewhat unbelievable fetish for conventional narratives, something which would perhaps be ruined by the presentation of the words of the piece in a book. Linear, straightforward stories, Neilson suggests, are no longer enough in our post-modern, post-structuralist moment, and if we want to go any way at all to mirroring the experiences of life, we need to delve further than simple drama.

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