Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness
As the Citz revives Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness Anthony Neilson talks to Steve Cramer about Victorian theatre and career highs and lows
There’s a sensitivity and warmth to writer Anthony Neilson that a cursory glance at his plays would not make immediately apparent. Works such as Normal, a story based on the exploits of a serial killer, and Penetrator, which features an army veteran abusing two young men, might not seem on the face of it to reflect Neilson’s humanity. Yet, in each case, there’s a quest for emotional affirmation, and a need for love at the centre.
Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness, Neilson’s 2002 play, seldom revived until now, marked something of a change of tone in his work. Yet, if the subject matter and content are lighter, there is still an intense emotional timbre underpinning the piece. Based on the sham premise that Neilson has uncovered a Victorian manuscript, and lovingly recreated the original play, the piece strings together a series of mock-melodramatic sketches, some comic, some bawdy, others quietly disturbing, to make less a piece of Victorian theatre than a piece of Victoriana viewed through slightly jaded contemporary eyes.
‘I’ve always been fascinated by that Kipling idea of the world,’ he says. ‘I’ve felt the urge in the past to recreate a Victorian piece of theatre from end to end, where the actors arrive in carriages and full costume for the show and so on.
So, is this urge a nostalgia for a complete popular form, untrammelled by considerations of taste that are based perhaps on pure snobbery? ‘Cinema has a wide variety of things on offer, and while there are still ideas about art house films and popular movies, a lot of that has broken down in recent years. But there seems to be a tribal element to theatre; it’s either West End or serious theatre for most audiences. I don’t like to divide things in that way.’
Edward Gant, Neilson confesses, arrived at a turning point in his career. ‘One of my plays, The Lying Kind, had failed pretty badly at the Royal Court, but this also coincided with a great personal crisis, so I produced this play first thing after a down period personally and professionally. I was in a bad place, and for a while I couldn’t write, so I decided to change my approach. First it was about letting my imagination run free – it was really about a piece of fun – there was a kind of Monty Python feel to it. Not content-wise – it’s a really serious play compared to some of my other stuff – but it led to a different way of doing theatre. In a way, it was a direct precursor to The Wonderful World of Dissocia.’
This latter piece, a triumph at the Edinburgh Festival in 2004, went a long way toward re-establishing Neilson’s credentials as an international name. His process with Dissocia, as with Gant and much of his work, was to assemble a small group of actors and direct his own work. This production, by Headlong doesn’t incorporate direct input by Neilson beyond the script, but director Steve Marmion was assistant director on the original production in Plymouth in 2002. ‘I hope it works like the original,’ says Neilson, ‘at least in the respect that it makes people feel warm and optimistic about things.’
Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness, Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, Tue 17–Sat 21 Mar.