Anthony Neilson: Are you sitting comfortably? Well, not for long

The Royal Court has commissioned its first festive children's show, from a writer who likes to shock. Andrew Johnson meets Anthony Neilson
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The Independent Online

As a self-described "purveyor of filth" whose plays have included goat rape and a Christmas elf with a heroin problem, Anthony Neilson might not appear a natural choice to write the Royal Court's first Christmas show for children.

Indeed, Neilson had to travel to Malta last year in an unsuccessful attempt to stop his play, Stitching, from being banned. "I had to go and testify in court," Neilson says. "They ban things left, right and centre over there. Really, the play is about terrible grief, but it also had a lot to do with abortion."

The Royal Court knows a thing or two, however, having taken early chances on such figures as Sarah Kane and Caryl Churchill. Neilson may not be a household name, but he has a lot of clout in the theatre world. He has directed at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is one of its literary associates. His plays have debuted for the National Theatre of Scotland and he has written for television, including Spooks. His 2003 play, The Lying Kind, ran in Greece for three years where, he says, he is held in the same regard as Ray Cooney (who wrote the hit farce Run for Your Wife).

His plays, such as The Wonderful World of Dissocia (featuring that goat rape), Realism (incest) and The Night Before Christmas (addicted elf) have garnered critical acclaim and he is considered at the forefront of modern theatre writing.

His decision to write a children's show came out of a desire to move on from the visceral work with which he is identified. "The show is about a little girl called Holly who's never met her real father and lives with her mother and grandmother and step dad," he explains. "Every year she's written to Santa and said: 'I don't want any presents, I want to meet my real dad.' And every year, of course, Santa doesn't deliver. So she decides to trap Santa and make him give her what she wants."

It's a gritty, domestic drama, he adds. But also a kids' show. There are songs, talking animals, magic beards and the step dad is actually a dog.

That said, Neilson's views on children may not inspire much confidence with the type of parents who take their offspring to the theatre.

"We want to reflect back an imaginary nostalgia, an imaginary idea of what children are," he says. "Children are horny, dirty and violent. Their consciousnesses aren't fully developed. It's fascinating stuff psychologically, but we hardly ever touch it because we want to reflect back what we like to believe our children are, what we like to think our past was. So, I think a lot of the arts industry – television and theatre – is about consolidating a rather comfortable view of the world."

Although he has no children of his own, it was while mentoring the kind of youngsters who don't usually interact with the theatre, in Somers Town, a not particularly wealthy part of north London, that he was struck by the idea of writing for them.

"What was fascinating for me was the way their minds work," he says. "The way they move with narrative is almost like a free association. I was always looking for a way to present things in a more interesting theatrical way – to construct plays in the way the mind works. Not to completely abandon narrative structure, but to see if that was something people were interested in. Children are very narrative animals."

He may be toning down the work, but Get Santa is still "a gritty and difficult story" about a child realising she is not the centre of the universe.

"Also it's about the changing nature of families and in my own way very much a riposte to the rather retrograde idea that secure family units of mothers and fathers is what makes a stable society. But ultimately it's a show for kids and it's fun."

Although writing for children is a departure for him, his riposte against the conventions of society is not.

"I find the flaws in human beings and the extremes in them interesting and I think it's deeply perverse to avoid those things," he says. "But kids are very adaptable; they don't have an understanding of mortality. Everything is very traumatic to us, so we create this image of children being these creatures who are innocent, which is a terrible, awful, word to describe them. We have this awful, sanitised, version of children which is far from the truth."

So, despite his track record for what is officially called "in-yer-face theatre" (although he denies it's intended to shock) he doesn't consider himself an outsider.

"I've always thought I was quite mainstream. I've always been rather surprised that I'm a bit of a niche," he says. "The problem is that the mainstream I'm writing for don't go to the fucking theatre. Doing what I'm doing, if you could get that stuff on television it would probably be quite popular. It puzzles me why something like Dissocia wouldn't be put on in the West End. Although if Keira Knightley was in it, it probably would."

He is scathing about the timidity in the West End, and the "star-fuckery" which sees theatres filled because celebrities appear in bland, safe productions. The celebrity, he says, is equally "risk averse".

"That to me is not theatre, it's not exciting or interesting in any way. What's the point?"

He identifies, however, a new strand of theatre which is slowly creeping up on what might be called the mainstream with innovation and courage. It is also a bit of a throwback to how the early theatre companies in Shakespeare's time used to work; shows are created to suit the strengths of the actors. He is talking about companies such as Kneehigh, Complicite and Improbable, who are increasingly working with established organisations such as the English National Opera and the Bristol Old Vic.

"I think you're seeing some of the most exciting theatre for a long time. There is a much healthier cross fertilisation between people who would once have been labelled performance art who are now moving into mainstream, text-based theatre and saying, 'This is what theatre is, this is what it offers that you can't get anywhere else.' The West End is rife with the sort of stuff where you just sit and watch something play out."

For himself, he maintains that worrying about awards or acceptance, only gets in the way of honest writing. He says "the mainstream changes" and that although his work is not what your parents might go to see, parents will eventually go to see it.

"So I'm aiming for the West End at about the age of 60, when I will then do the vilest thing I have ever done."

Curriculum Vitae

1967: Born in Edinburgh to actor parents. Wins a scholarship to independent George Heriot's School.

1986: Trains at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and is expelled.

1990: First play, Welfare My Lovely, debuts at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh.

1990s: Writes for television (Prime Suspect and the Granada Crime Story series). Writes a putative script for a film based on the TV series Cracker but it is never made.

1997: Wins Writers' Guild Best Fringe Play Award for The Censor, about an encounter between a porn actress and a censor, in which the woman defecates on stage.

1999: Debut feature film, The Debt Collector, wins an International Critics' Award.

2002: His "sick play" Stitching, in which a woman stitches up her vagina, debuts at Edinburgh Festival. There are walk-outs and pickets by religious groups. Last year, it was banned in Malta.

2002: The Lying Kind debuts at the Royal Court. Goes on to be a massive hit in Greece.

2004: The Wonderful World of Dissocia, about mental illness, praised by Daily Telegraph as a "modern classic".

2005: Wins a Herald Angel award for his direction of American composer John Adams's opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, for the Edinburgh International Festival and Scottish Opera.

2006: Writes Realism, "the story of a day when nothing in particular happens", for National Theatre of Scotland.

2009: Directs a new Russian play, The Drunks, for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford.