“Something extraordinary has to come out of this process, or I’ve put everyone through hell for nothing.” It’s a dramatic statement, but delivered with odd calmness by playwright and director Anthony Neilson.
We meet after what’s obviously been a nerve-wracking run-through of his new play Unreachable; when we meet it’s only a week till it opens at the Royal Court, and he hasn’t finished writing the script. Neilson has high hopes that it will be extraordinary: “there’s something potentially really good here.”
But his cast – including one former Time Lord Matt Smith – look frankly terrified. There’s lot of laughter in the room too, but it often strikes a slightly hysterical note.
Still, they were warned about his methods, and their madness. Neilson, author of ‘in-yer-face’ plays like Penetrator and Stitching, has become increasingly interested in devising work. When this cast signed on, all they had to go on was a premise – a film director on an obsessive quest to capture the perfect light – and a promise, that it would be “an experience” at least.
“There’s now an hour and a half speech I give to people trying to put them off,” says Neilson, which sounds like a joke. But Smith confirms it: “That actually was your opening gambit to me: I went to his house, and he said, right, it’s going to sound like I’m persuading you to not do this.”
Didn’t work: Smith is clearly fired up by a challenge. And Neilson’s unstructured way of working certainly has proved that. “Everything is in flux, which is tricky,” acknowledges Smith.
“It’s not really like rehearsing. In fact, we don’t rehearse,” says Jonjo O’Neill. “Normally, there is an accepted pattern: you start with the read-through, you do act one scene one on Tuesday… Whereas this process is the complete opposite of that.”
Pinning down what exactly they do do each day itself proves tricky, but leadership exercises, group meditation and jamming sessions are mentioned. They made a (hilarious) music video, posted on the Royal Court’s website along with materials discussed in rehearsals: articles about synaesthesia, scientific theories of refraction, Werner Herzog on his infamously torturous shoot for the film Aguirre.
But evidently this melting pot hasn’t quite belched out a coherent play yet. “You have to bollock-scramble, but you do get it on,” says Neilson blithely. “And it’s incredibly energising because you did something you thought couldn’t be done.”
His calmness is doubly surprisingly given he’s barely sleeping at the moment. After rehearsals, he writes through the night fuelled – as Smith laughingly describes it – “by those mad Boost drinks, and listening to soundtracks of thunder. Only Anthony…”
So what actually happens in the play? “The story is about a director who is self-sabotaging somewhat,” says Neilson. “He has two colleagues he’s worked with for many years; they’re at their most successful but also beginning to fracture. It all gets progressively more odd and chaotic, but it’s funny too.” Unreachable will explore the creative ego, the hierarchical structure of celebrity, and the potential “emotional manipulation and exploitation” of others in pursuit of art.
It comes as no surprise, then, that process and product are here inexplicably intertwined. Some of the actors appear to be mid freak-out at the lack of boundaries between self and role. “The job is turning up and being yourself,” points out O’Neill. “Bring along your bundle of life and bump it into other people’s bundles, and then Anthony will write about that.”
At one point in the interview Tamara Lawrance, only on her third job after drama school, succumbs to terrified laughter; Neilson jokingly picks up a Pritstick and tries to glue her mouth shut.
“What I was intrigued by was that my being in the room changes everything,” Lawrance explains. “But then three weeks in, it’s like ‘oh my, I’m so scared!’ Anthony would describe what he wanted and I [realised], he’s actually just describing me: I am an actress and this character is an actress. But it’s weirdly difficult to be yourself.”
Smith, however, is more phlegmatic. “To be honest, you put in part of yourself in every show. If you’re playing Hamlet, it’s all your own anxieties, it’s you confronting your own father ghost.” The difference is Neilson feeds the actors into the writing, rather than the actors finding themselves in the text.
Is it liberating for him to do a totally unknown role, a way to escape the baggage of (since he mentioned it) a part like Hamlet? It is – “but each thing has its own set of anxieties. Whatever anxieties you find in this, you can bet your bottom dollar that if you’re doing a big Shakespeare, you’ll find them in that too.”
All this self-excavation isn’t meant to be “sadistic or humiliating”, insists Neilson – it’s about being totally honest. “The drinks people go for, the arguments they have, the anger they have, the laughter they have, all of these things feed in [to the play]. It’s a ‘crash yourself on the rocks’ thing.” He pauses. “There is a slightly romantic notion I have that… we should sort of almost die doing something.”
There’s a ripple round the room: eye-rolling? A sniggering in-joke? And when Nielson’s starts showing me the scars he got on different plays (“that’s from Dissocia…”), I begin to be sure that I am the joke here, that I’ve accidentally fallen into a workshop exploring how journalists buy the lines of megalomaniac directors…
It’s a fear somewhat reinforced when actress Amanda Drew interrupts briskly. “This is obviously mirroring the play. Anthony, being very intuitive, instinctive, his [rehearsal] process is mirroring the process of the play and we are trying to support that and wait for the unreachable” – loaded pause – “’play.’”
“A play about a director who destroys his relationships with people and pushes them away!” laughs Neilson, delighted at the life/art mirroring. Still, there’s a touch of acid to Drew’s tone as she continues “six characters – and a playwright – in search of a play. It will all feed in; one just has to realise that’s what’s actually going on, I suppose, to keep sane.”
And just how scared are you about it, right now? “I feel like I’ve got Stockholm syndrome,” says Drew. “That’s good!” replies Neilson. “There is something bonding about adversity. I could be in a terrible state – I should be suicidal! Because it’s insane. And really, it’s me that’s much more on the line than anyone else.”
“It is.” Drew again, steely, followed by slightly crazed laughter. “I mean, hats off to you mate: I couldn’t do it, I would be suicidal.”
Worrying about it too much is also silly, Neilson concludes. “If this past six weeks had been about arranging a military force to take a Syrian stronghold, I’d be extremely worried because we would all die. We would die!” But it’s only, he reminds them, a bit of art.
It’s six o’clock – time to go home, says a production manager to the cast. “Hurrah,” replies Smith, before adding dryly. “Well, that was a wonderful therapy session.”
Unreachable is at the Royal Court, London until 6 August (020 7565 5000)