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Anthony Neilson - Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness

Anthony Neilson wasn’t in a good place when he wrote Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness. It was 2002, and while the Edinburgh born writer’s play Stitching courted both controversy and success in Edinburgh and London, a commission for the Royal Court, The Lying Kind, had been received badly. Work was drying up, while personally too Neilson was in a deep funk. To write a pastiche of a Good Old Days style Victorian freak show, then, wasn’t the obvious answer to his problems. Without Edward Gant, though, it’s unlikely that Neilson would have moved into the free-associative spectacle of The Wonderful World of Dissocia or its follow-up, the sorely under-rated Realism. Both plays took leaps into the darker recesses of the imagination, yet also tapped into a music hall sensibility that made for something thoroughly entertaining.

“Edward Gant was quite a strange one for me,” Neilson ruminates as a revival of the play by the Headlong company arrives at the Citizens Theatre this week, “because I suppose it’s quite a traditional play. When I wrote it I was in one of those phases which I’ll probably have again, where you’re out of favour. The Lying Kind hadn’t done too well, and I was quite strung out, and had become persona non grata in the way that you do when you have the opposite of a triumph. I had the title, which was then just Amazing Feats of Loneliness, and I thought it would end up as quite a contemporary piece, but I didn’t know. At the time I certainly wasn’t wanting to search the depths of my festering psyche. It’s fun, and is quite important to me, because it opened me up to becoming more imaginative and embracing a style that was more theatrically free.”

Given Neilson’s methodology, whereby he creates a work from scratch in the rehearsal room, Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness isn’t an obvious choice for revival. The fact that director Steve Marmion assisted Neilson on the original production points to a necessary umbilical link.

“Steve’s always championed it,” says Neilson, “and has been trying to get this off the ground for a while now. It’s quite strange watching it now, because often I work with people who are friends of mine, and the characters become inextricably linked with them. Because of that, there are moments which will never be the same. But it’s an odd play. It’s quirky, and isn’t to everybody’s taste, but it has a sense of humour to it. It’s quite Pythonesque in style, very Terry Gilliam. There’s quite a lot of Ripping Yarns there, because it’s set during the days of Empire, when there was a specific attitude to things. I’ve always found that Kiplingesque thing quite funny. But it’s not a major philosophically profound statement. It’s a celebration of imagination.”

This year is shaping up to be a year of revivals for Neilson. Or rather, it would be if a mooted production of Stitching in Malta hadn’t been banned. In a move reminiscent of the long abolished Lord Chamberlain’s right to censor dramatic works in Britain, the Maltese board of film and stage classification exercised its right for a blanket ban on a play on various grounds of blasphemy, ‘obscene contempt for the victims of Auschwitz’, what they describe as ‘an encyclopaedic review of dangerous sexual perversions leading to sexual servitude,’ an alleged eulogy to serial killers Fred and Rose West and references to ‘the abduction, sexual assualt and murder of children.’

While no-one is pretending that Stitching is a walk in the park, such an extreme reaction to a disquieting but poetic work is remarkable. Especially when Malta purports to be a democracy, and will be hosting one of 2018’s European Capital of culture celebrations. Neilson describes the document which outlined the reasons for the ban quoted above as “crazy. It’s the sort of thing we were doing with the Festival of Light,” he says, referring to the late Mary Whitehouse’s campaign for the so-called ‘moral majority.’

“Religion is a big part of it,” Neilson says, observing that Malta’s state religion is Catholicism. “Because the pla talks a lot about abortion. The theatre company who were doing it arte pursuing it throuh the courts, and it’s become this little pont of focus to do with freedom of expression. What’s really despicable is that the prople behind the ban hide behind the holocaust thing. It’s one line. Their action is so very cowardly, because I don’t think this is the real reason they’ve banned it. But that system will, I hope, fall, even if we seem to be running towards these kinds of lock-downs in terms of expression. Once you start defending the rights of one group of people to not be offended, it becomes a house of cards, then you get into an awful form of self-censorship. As idiotic and vulgar as Jonathan Ross was recently, and Carol Thatcher was talking about golliwogs, while they’re both very different cases, there’s a very British thing going on there that’s more to do with manners than anything.”

Neilson mentions two very recent protests at plays produced in London. A discussion following Richard Bean’s English People Very Nice saw members of the audience invade the stage to object to what they saw as cultural stereotyping of the immigrant community as portrayed in the play. Caryl Churchill’s ten minute response to the Gaza bombings, Seven Jewish Children, has been condemned in some quarters as being anti-Semitic.

“In a sense,” says Neilson, “it’s a good thing for theatre, because we can have these kind of debates.”

There are moves, however, to make a film of Stitching, while a feature film of Neilson’s early play, Normal, about a German serial killer, has just finished shooting in Prague.

“I’ve had nothing to do with it,” Neilson points out, “and I’m very cynical about these things anyway, in that I never think it’ll happen.”

Something that most definitely is happening is a large-scale production of The Wonderful World of Dissocia by the Sydney State Theatre, and a presumably unmolested production of Stitching in Los Angeles, featuring one of the cast of The Sopranos. As his back catalogue moves into the global repertoire, however, Neilson remains far from idle. He’s currently writing a Christmas show for the Royal Court, and has written a television drama, Spilsbury, about forensic pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, whose cases included Dr Crippen’s murders, for BBC 4. Neilson is also about to direct The Drunks, a new play by Russian writers the Durnenkov Brothers, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he is currently the organisation’s Literary Associate.

“I’m really kind of helping shape the RSC’s new writing policy,” he says. “There’s something quite challenging about being involved with new writing in a company that isn’t known for new writing, even though that’s fifty per cent of its output. I suppose I’m being a pain in the a***, trying to stir things up a little, which I think is why they hired me.”

After a couple of years free of Scottish commissions, Neilson sounds ready to join the fray once more.

“It’s been good to take a step back,” he says, “but I’m starting to miss it. There’s something about Scottish audiences where they seem more prepared to have a good time. That’s why I suspect Edward Gant might go down well. Theatre doesn’t always have to be about the great profundities of life.”

Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness, Citizens Theatre, March 17-21

The Herald, March 17th 2009



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