Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2006


On the street, after Anthony Neilson's new play, a well-spoken stranger asked me, "Did you think that was shite, or did you [with a tang of distaste and incredulity] enjoy it?" This was not, I fear, the beginning of a beautiful friendship: I inclined towards enjoyment, and told him so.  Two years ago, in The Wonderful World Of Dissocia, Neilson created a kaleidoscopically absurd world to mimic that inside a mentally disturbed young woman's head. Realism ostensibly moves to the opposite extreme, with a day on which its young male protagonist does nothing whatever; its contents, however, belie the title, being instead strikingly similar to those of the land of Dissocia. Neilson recognises that we are an imaginative species, constantly running scenarios of future events, grafting memories on to one another or engaging in more or less wild fantasies.

Thus, whilst supposedly vegged out on his sofa, protagonist Stuart McQuarrie (often here Neilson uses his cast's real names) is goaded by an imaginary childhood friend, imagines himself dominating an edition of Any Questions+ and reruns and refashions moments from his two crucial romantic relationships. At one point, his response to a bill becomes a big production number, a song whose only lyrics are "What a bunch of fucking cunts", complete with chorus line and black-face minstrels, which latter point leads in turn to an interrogation of his own imagination's racism.

Although there is bad-taste humour, the graphic discomfiture one associates with Neilson's work is wholly absent here: where Dissocia had a second act which located its protagonist "objectively" in a coldly lit psychiatric hospital, Realism has an anti-coup de théâtre coda which neither resolves nor re-informs anything. The play, directed by the author for the National Theatre of Scotland, is a testimony to his belief that the era of "in-yer-face" theatre has passed and will be superseded by Caryl Churchill-style absurdism. I suspect my interlocutor's discontent was because he felt the piece was about nothing - which is its whole point - or that the gags and caprices of these 85 minutes were somehow easy. Of course it is easy to let our imagination take flight; it is in our nature. What is harder is the artistic portrayal of such flight. Neilson thinks he may have found a way of doing this, and I think he may be right.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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