Anthony Neilson Interview SKINNYFEST

With the world premiere of his new play, Realism, looming, playwright Anthony Neilson talks to us about filmmaking, the joys of childishness and being bored by the theatre today.

Feature by Yasmin Sulaiman | 14 Aug 2006
Perhaps the searing heat of the Glasgow sun has addled his mind, but playwright Anthony Neilson is hopelessly, frustratingly cryptic about his new offering, Realism. Set to premiere at the International Festival this month, it is the long awaited follow-up to 2004's The Wonderful World of Dissocia, a multi-award winning play that sealed Neilson's status as one of Scotland's greatest talents. When asked what we can expect from his new offering, he teases: 'I don't want to say exactly what it's about but you can expect both the exact opposite and also something quite similar. It's similarly quite funny and it has musical numbers and is quite colourful. But about the direct opposite.'

Infamous for his unorthodox writing/directing technique (it's less than a month until opening night and he still doesn't have a written script) Neilsen began his dramatic career in the same vein of his parents: acting. But he was expelled from the Welsh College of Music and Drama – 'I didn't really have the X factor' – and his apparent failure in this field led him straight to writing. Since then, his heights of success have extended to filmmaking, in 1999's The Debt Collector starring Billy Connolly, and more recently to opera, in The Death of Klinghoffer, performed at last year's International Festival.

It's four weeks until showtime but Neilson looks tired already. However he claims to feel little pressure at the moment: 'I'm aware the response was surprisingly nice for Dissocia, and I think that in Scotland it doesn't stay that way for long. It's the nature of things – the knives come out a bit. But success is relative. It got good reviews and won awards but the performance itself never sold out. And we had more difficulty putting a tour together than I thought we would.'

The varied nature of Neilson's work since Dissocia shows a remarkable depth of talent, but he seems somewhat embittered by his experience at last year's Festival. 'I don't know if I'd direct another opera. Brian McMasters asked me to do Klinghoffer, I think he thought that I would really cling on to the narrative, and that's what it needed. But in opera, the narrative and everything else is second to the music, and necessarily so, but I'm not used to playing second fiddle.'

Neilson's involvement in the National Theatre of Scotland's project Home Edinburgh, a collection of plays written by 10-12 year olds in the capital and repeated across the country, shows a slightly different, perhaps less controlling, side to his craftsmanship. 'It was something that I wanted to do for quite a while. What's great about it is that children aren't encumbered by an ego, so their writing was very mixed. To be very honest, it's present in my mind that for a lot of people they don't go to the theatre for fear of boredom. And to be completely honest, I don't blame them. Because I've been bored fucking rigid by some things I've seen. So, any way in which theatre can be surprising is great. A lot of what I'm doing now is trying to work in that way by keeping that childish part of yourself alive.'

So is this artistic childishness something that we can expect from Realism? He still gives nothing away. But, despite this evasion, the play still seems to promise a unique experience, not least because it will probably be Neilson's last piece of theatre for a while to come. 'The great thing about the Fringe is that good stuff can be found in a venue that you've never heard of. Because Realism is on at the International Festival, it doesn't mean it'll be a better show than something in some toilet in Haymarket. But I've been to the festival for the last three years and you get a bit sick of it really, and I've been meaning to get back into film for a while. I learned a lot from making The Debt Collector and I want to put that into practice. I've just got to find a project that I think deserves all that time. I want to get back into it – if I can.'
Royal Lyceum, 14-19 Aug, 19.30. 19 Aug 14.30. From £7.50.