Narrative is Anthony Neilson's latest show, at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. In his usual way, it's developed and written through rehearsals; the title was only announced a couple of weeks before first night (my tickets just state 'a new play by Anthony Neilson'). It looks like a very innovative practice - only Neilson and Mike Leigh seem to officially get to work like this - though plenty of writers work right up to the wire and beyond (I hold my guilty hand up). Alan Ayckbourn announces a play and a title and writes the play just about in time for the start of rehearsals. Many or even most performance companies have only a title and a handful of ideas when a show is sold to a tour. Nonetheless, Neilson is unusual in walking the high wire so publicly. And I think it helps create an exhilarating quality to the performances, a roughness, a provisionality, a sense that the work has not be dulled by endless fernickety contemplation. The shows made this way are coarse and immediate and angular and brilliant.
Narrative is no exception. It's gonna be very hard to describe but here goes. The show comprises a large number of small-scale storylines which kind of intersect but kind of don't. Two actors share a flat; one suddenly gets cast in the lead of a massive Hollywood blockbuster, Elastic Man, to the envious horror of his friend; but his success is tainted by anxiety - someone has been sending him anonymously photographs of an arsehole - he doesn't know why and begins to wonder if somehow it is photograph of his own arsehole; the unsuccessful actor auditions ludicrously for a terrible advert for a stupid product, the Foot Mouse; the representative of the advertiser is the successful actor's ex-girlfriend, a neurotic and over-committing woman, who acquires and loses three lovers during the show; the last of these is a woman, an intense young woman who works as a waitress (and supplies Elastic Man with the anonymous arsehole); at one point, in a chat with a friend, this young woman stabs her in the neck and, it seems, kills her. The act is pointless, unmotivated, out of nowhere, and as a result this young murderer acquires bison horns (see above). This doomed woman has just split up with a boyfriend a man who thinks that what is wrong with young people is they want everything now and can't commit long-term. Another woman is campaigning to have an acne treatment banned because it is thought to have a side-effect of stimulating suicidal thoughts - and her son took his own life after using it; eventually, though, she discovers that her son didn't use the treatment at all; she also acquires horns.
Yeah, that's really not much of a story. Which is, of course, the point. The show is investigating the very possibility of writing a story now. Narrative is, I suppose, generally thought to carve a satisfying shape out of the world and distribute meaning through it. It provides information, crisis, and closure, rewards or denies efforts, grants significance to lives, relationships, problems and disasters. Narrative asks a number of questions about these aspects of narrative.
First, does everything have significance? When Imogen suddenly stabs her friend, there's no explanation; she just acts. Is this an unnarratable event? It seems to suck meaning out of the world and face us with pure existential action that seems without narratable meaning. When Christine Entwhistle's character discovers that her son did not take the drug she's been campaigning about, it renders her efforts absurd; when Oliver Rix is picked to be Elastic Man, there's no explanation of why it happens, why him and not his friend? Who is sending the arsehole photographs? We never know.
Second, are we now too short-termist to cope with narrative? The question is explored through one-sided relationships, one person wanting to commit long term, the other denying the commitment. Brian Doherty condemns Sophie Ross for her lack of commitment and I found myself agreeing but then also found Zawe Ashton's character absurd in her attempt to cling onto a dead relationship. There's a genuine perplexity here.
Third, and perhaps most powerfully, death seems to be what turns lives into narrative but also what deprives them of meaning. The show begins with what looks like a museum film discussing one of the cave painting at Lascaux which appears to depict a bison attacking a man. The voiceover remarks that the image does not merely show us an event, but a narrative; by showing us a death, it allows us to speculate about a life; it shows us causality, sequence, closure, even an arc. Death, to coin a cliché, is the ultimate narrative closure. But at the same time, death's meaninglessness or perhaps its unfathomability renders life itself hard to understand. In the movies, the boy's struggles to get the girl are given meaning and justification when, at the end of the movie, he gets to girl. But what does death signify or justify? It's a zero, rewarding voidly our living efforts and draining those of purpose. This is marked throughout by the meaningless death of Sophie's character, the meaningless death of Christine's son, right through to the meaningless end.
I've rather made it sound like a rather bleak and abstract experience. Narrative joins Realism as an up-front examination of theatrical form (if we're voting for the next in the series, I'm putting a bid in for Character), but, as always with Neilson, the show is funny, filthy, and thrillingly ragged. It completely holds its stage and our attention and I want to make a show this way.