Thursday, 18 April 2013

Theatre review: Narrative

If Anthony Neilson writes a play called Narrative, one thing you can be fairly confident about going in is that there won't be a traditional narrative on offer. Although the action does coalesce into a story as the play goes on and the characters form relationships, what Neilson and his actors are interested in is the way life itself can be experienced as a story, and consequently rewritten in hindsight. A mother (Christine Entwisle) channels her grief over her son's death into a petition to ban the drug that killed him; when new information shines a different light on events, how does it also change what her life has become? A young woman (Zawe Ashton) goes through a series of failed relationships; she changes her backstory about how her mother's love made her who she is, but the outcome of her relationships is always the same. And an actor's (Big Favourite Round These Parts Oliver Rix) success sees his life become as fake as the character he's playing on screen.

On Garance Marneur's anti-naturalistic black and white set of sharp angles and broken mirrors, the actors perform in T-shirts with photos of themselves as children screen-printed on them, perhaps as a nod to different stages of their own life stories. (This also reveals the alarming fact that Olly Rix used to be Fred Savage.)

Neilson is one of my favourite playwrights, not least of all because you can never tell what he'll do next, and Narrative continues the trend of innovative work which presents intelligent ideas wrapped in often warped humour (Rix's storyline kicks off with the anonymous delivery of a photo of someone's anus, which kicks off a whole world of paranoia for him.) One of the most interesting twists of personal narrative sees Imogen Doel's life take a very wrong turn, and her rewriting her past to include an instance of abuse that absolves her of blame. This comes about through one of the video projection segments that occasionally break into the action, a rather creepy Skype conversation reminiscent of the spookiness of Relocated, that made me think Neilson probably has a pretty scary low-budget horror movie in him should he ever decide to take a break from the serious stuff. There's also a rather wonderful, strangely moving speech near the end where Brian Doherty does a sort of version of the Seven Ages of Man speech, but with the choice of seat on a double-decker bus providing the metaphor.

Narrative also takes the opportunity to comment on itself and the theatrical form, without disappearing up its own arse (unlike the characters in a particular storyline.) Neilson, like Mike Leigh, writes his scripts during rehearsal and around his actors (this play didn't have a title until just before it opened) and the characters here share the actors' names. When Rix first turned up at the RSC in 2011, I wasn't the only person to think the fact that he looks like real-life Disney prince might see him getting the call from Hollywood sooner or later, and that's what Neilson has happen to him here; although with the indignities he then piles onto him, you could be forgiven for thinking the writer/director is dissuading the actor from pursuing stardom, to make sure his price tag doesn't get too high for future collaborations. (I can understand why Rix in that outfit isn't among the publicity images, as the element of surprise is part of the fun, but I'm just saying, those would probably be photos people would like to look at. Frequently.)

Meanwhile as Rix's less successful flatmate, Barnaby Power tries and fails to keep his own story away from the predictable jealousy and bitterness, while the unpredictability of the rehearsal room spills over onto the stage as he suffers indignities of his own, culminating in his story being taken out of his own control abruptly. This sense of the play always being in flux extends to comic moments like Entwisle deciding to be a different character mid-scene.

With frequent, unexpected shifts of tone and some very silly humour (I don't know why the mispronounced names in the video segments are so funny but they are) Narrative is a brilliant piece of work, and a much better representation of Dominic Cooke's tenure at the Royal Court than The Low Road, which is getting all the attention. And the word "spokes" will never quite have the same meaning again.

Narrative by Anthony Neilson is booking until the 4th of May at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through.

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