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‘It’s my job to show you a turd and tell you why it’s beautiful.’  Anthony Neilson on his new Royal Court play Unreachable

‘It’s my job to show you a turd and tell you why it’s beautiful.’  Anthony Neilson on his new Royal Court play Unreachable

22 July 2016 Natasha Sutton-Williams

An agent provocateur and antiauthoritarian, writer and director Anthony Neilson spills the beans on his unorthodox theatre-making style. He enters into the rehearsal room with a single idea. For Unreachable it was ‘a film director on an obsessive quest to capture the perfect light’. He devises the play with input from the cast, then doesn’t stop writing the play till after press night.

London Calling: Some audience members cry with laughter during Unreachable. Some of your critics say simple entertainment on stage is too lowbrow. What do you think?
 
Anthony Neilson: This play is not superficial. Whether you like it or not, it’s actually about the business of being human. I want an audience to understand that, through laughter, but it’s all getting through and entering the person. There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how art reaches people. You are not a soapbox. If theatre stops entertaining people, if we get pretentious and start thinking of ourselves as politicians without portfolios, people stop coming. And they have. Audiences don’t want to be lectured to, they don’t want to feel stupid when they come out of it, and there’s no need for it. For me it’s a failure of skill on the theatre-makers. You can say something perfectly serious and profound, while at the same time entertaining people. You have to make it gripping, be imaginative or make them laugh. If you forget those things your material is not going to land. It’s not going to access people. People are resistant and laughter is one of those things that opens them. I get the feeling more so than I’ve ever felt before that there is this real need to laugh. Some of the stuff in Unreachable wouldn’t have got the same laughs even a year ago. There’s a real desire to forget right now.
 
LC: Do you think theatre has lost its audience by being too didactic and dogmatic?
 
AN: I’m really critical of what is going on in theatre and the arts generally. We have developed a culture of relentless competence. It’s not that things are terrible, they’re not, but what we’ve got is just relentless competence. The most highly prized and awarded are the people who are relentlessly competent. Nobody can really dislike what they do. Very few people are actually inspired or really like what they do, but it is always sort of ‘okay’. Everybody loves ‘okay’. It’s not offensive but nor does it alter your perception.
 
I think great art is about how you think. There’s a lot of people who don’t have a very interesting view of the world. They substitute opinion and statement for that, as if that alone will make them interesting, yet it doesn’t. It just makes them one voice amongst many. They do not understand what art does.
 
LC: So what does art do? How can it be a powerful force in today’s society?
 
AN: It’s not stating opinion, it’s looking at something from a different angle. I said years ago and it’s still true, I have never felt it was my job to show you a rose and tell you it’s beautiful. It’s my job to show you a turd and tell you why that’s beautiful. That’s what art does. Art is a great benefit to society because it’s empathy training. It’s about taking people and putting them in the shoes of somebody else or giving the viewpoint of somebody else, not the opinion, but the viewpoint so they can see the world through different eyes. That’s how we change. We don’t change when someone is wagging their finger at us and being dogmatic. We change when we listen to someone who genuinely seems to be sharing their experience of life. We go, ‘I had not thought of it like that.’ You allow people to find understanding for themselves. That’s much more affecting and effective.
 
LC: How can today’s theatre live up to this promise to affect and change the viewer?
 
AN: The conventional idea of the well-made play, which is essentially a structure that mirrored the unities of life as it was meant to be led, has all fallen apart. We’re in this weird time where theatre critics are trying to pull us back to that kind of theatre. I just hope that people younger than me come and say, ‘Let’s blow this apart. ‘
 
The well-made play has its roots in Aristotle but it’s also a post war structure for Britain at a time when people had one career, one relationship, one family. Now we’re living in a world where people have multiple identities. We will possibly have two or three quite distinct careers in our lives, two or three important relationships, possibly with children. People should be saying, ‘This is not right. This hermetically sealed mode of theatre with easy answers and statements is no longer relevant.’
 
Unreachable plays at the Royal Court Theatre until the 6th August. For more information and tickets, please visit the website

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