Snoo Wilson: Playwright whose work was fuelled by his chaotic visions of the absurd and surreal

 

Snoo Wilson, who has died of a heart attack at 64, was an unruly and unpredictable playwright who never achieved the popular approval his great originality and talent warranted. He was like the alternative Tom Stoppard, clever and witty, but with a pronounced enthusiasm for the supernatural, the occult and the bizarre.

In Who's Who he registered his hobbies as bee-keeping and space travel, an indication of the range of his interests from the biologically specific to the globally adventurous. One of his best plays, Soul of the White Ant (1976), was a steamy study of the pioneering work done by Eugene Marais among termites, cloaked in mud and mysticism, but with a metaphorical resonance in matters of life-giving and life-taking.

The role of Marais was taken by Simon Callow, a regular collaborator; other actors of the calibre of Antony Sher, Julie Walters, Corin Redgrave, Miriam Margolyes, Tony Rohr, Billie Whitelaw and Richard Pasco were consistently attracted to scenarios that treated theatre as a place to discover "the other life." These explorations often implicated such controversial super-human characters as Aleister Crowley, the Virgin Mary, Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin.

Wilson was no mystical freak or way-out hippie himself, though he did claim to have seen a flying saucer in his Clapham, south London, back garden. He approached theatre as a prosaic and practical art form, he said, "where you could play a game of Let's Pretend the Physical World isn't as Solid as the Daily Telegraph says it is." For although he was labelled a "fringe" dramatist, Wilson was a genuine product of the intellectual underground in 1968 and someone who thought of theatre not as a place to preach to the already converted élite but to move his audience into another dimension of experience; he was a revivalist preacher, not a sermonising one.

In 1968, in response to the Paris événements, the American impresario Jim Haynes founded the Arts Lab in Drury Lane and, a year later, when that closed down, Wilson was in the vanguard of the sprouting new arts lab and campus theatre circuit. David Hare and Tony Bicât, founded Portable Theatre, and were joined by Howard Brenton and Wilson in creating a sort of travelling terrorist unit of new theatre that, along with groups like the Freehold, the People Show and Pip Simmons, which were more influenced by art school and off-Broadway, created the second major new wave of theatre in this country in the 1970s following the John Osborne revolution at the Royal Court in 1956.

Towards the end of the 1970s Wilson was on a lecture tour of Australia with Osborne, who accused him of promulgating the myth that the English theatre was reborn in the armpits of Time Out. Typically, Wilson enjoyed the joke – well, he had recently married the journalist and Time Out theatre editor, Ann McFerran – but was soon conducting a friendly correspondence with Osborne after a revival of the senior playwright's coruscating Inadmissible Evidence inspired a new play he wrote for the ICA.

Wilson was a university wit, but not from Oxbridge. "Snoo" was one of several childhood nicknames, the one which stuck. He was the son of two teachers, Leslie Wilson and his wife Pamela Mary, née Boyle, and, after the co-educational Bradfield College (where his father taught), he attended the University of East Anglia, where he studied with Malcolm Bradbury and Lorna Sage, taking a degree in English and American Studies.

His first performed play, in 1968, was a radical rewrite of Shakespeare's Pericles with the cast acting literally out of their prams – those prams became boats, chariots, or beds, as required – and replacing the salve of reunion with the bitterness of chaos. The film producer and critic Peter Ansorge, an important early champion of his work, pointed out that Wilson was not just a wacky one-off but a serious absurdist (Ionesco was a key influence) whose surrealism was a visionary by-product of global, spiritual and metaphysical concerns.

This much emerged in two stunning plays for Portable: Pignight (1969) was a prophetic parable of pollution and waste on a Lincolnshire farm overrun by a criminal gang; and Blowjob (1971) pictured skinheads and a schizoid girlfriend running riot across the land, some dialogue conducted in black-out to indicate the girl's condition. In the first play, a pig had its throat cut, in the second, a dead dog was thrown on the stage (raw meat figured large).

He hit his stride with two ambitious three-act plays, Vampire (1972), which investigated the concept of vampirism as a Victorian melodrama, a study of the suffragettes in a modern funeral parlour with Enoch Powell rising from a coffin to deliver his speech about English cities becoming alien territories; and The Pleasure Principle (1973), directed in the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs by David Hare, a dramatised debate about the nature of love in a capitalist society with a deep strain of melancholy – and dancing gorillas.

His Aleister Crowley play The Beast (1974) led to a fruitful period as dramaturge at the Royal Shakespeare Company, followed by a stint as script editor on the BBC's Play for Today. An ambitious but ill-fated look at the Kray Brothers, England England (1978), with a great rock score by Kevin Coyne, was followed by his major Royal Court play, The Glad Hand (1978), in which the antichrist was pursued through the Bermuda Triangle during the cowboy strike of 1886; Max Stafford-Clark directed, sumptuously.

Since that watershed, Wilson's career was a fitful process of consolidation and recovery, littered with more screenplays than were actually filmed – the best were Philip Saville's Shadey (1985), a black comedy with elements of incest, transexuality and insanity, and Robert Young's Eichmann (2007), based on the manuscripts of the Nazi war criminal's interrogation before he was tried and hanged in Israel.

The Bush Theatre in Shepherd's Bush was his second home, eliciting two remarkable small-scale extravaganzas, More Light (1987), which convened Giordano Bruno with Elizabeth I, Doctor Dee and a female Shakespeare in heaven in 1600, and Darwin's Flood (1994) in which the great man's last night is interrupted by Nietzsche in a wheelbarrow, Christ on a bike and Mary Magdalene dropping from a helicopter with a bag of sex aids.

A 1994 comedy of royal manners, HRH, a two-hander for the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson, was revived in the West End in 1997 but despite drawing some cheeky parallels between Wallis and the recently deceased Princess Diana it failed to deliver Wilson the commercial success he was perhaps wrongly craving.

Despite many disappointments, Wilson always remained a cheerful and busy operator, writing and reading ceaselessly, and teaching with distinction at the University of California at San Diego; in 1992, he was made an honorary Texan. He also wrote several novels (including one about Crowley) and two librettos, for Gounod's La Colombe in 1983 and, in 1984, a satirical and very funny new version of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Undergound for English National Opera at the Coliseum.

Andrew James Wilson, playwright: born Reading 2 August 1948; married 1976 Ann McFerran (one daughter, two sons); died Ashford, Kent 3 July 2013.

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