Anthony Neilson is one of the most interesting, provocative and unpredictable playwrights around, brilliant at creating creepy atmospheres and danger in a theatre.
But his new piece, Narrative, which he also directs, while full of good things and fine acting by a cast who use their own Christian names as character identification, is curiously muted and unconvincing. It sounds as though it’s being made up as it goes along, but that edgy quality is not devoid of doubts on our side, too.
The three men are all actors: Brian Doherty (so good in the Tom Murphy trilogy from Druid last year) as a jobbing ham with queries on motivation; Barnaby Power as a foot-mouse plugger in a humiliating advert; Oliver Rix as Barnaby’s flatmate who lands a Hollywood lead as Elastic Man opposite George Clooney but is haunted by a photo of an unidentified nether orifice he’s received from a waitress in a café.
Is that orifice his own? The vanity of human wishes is threaded through scenes of domestic fall-out and confrontation, therapy sessions and a climactic radio recording session of a misfired lesbian relationship between Zawe Ashton’s actress-turned-PR and Imogen Doel’s troubled Irish spitfire who in turn has inadvertently killed her best friend, Sophie Ross’s slinky Australian girl-about-town.
Then there is Christine Entwisle as a grieving mother whose teenage son has committed suicide after being given drugs that didn’t help his depression. It’s typical of the slackness in the writing that her “unscripted” intervention remains just that and the jostling of realities in the drama left unexplored after she’s had her say.
The actors inhabit an anodyne white setting designed by Garance Marneur and lit with striking shades of pale colour by Chahine Yavroyan: this anthropological playground of bars, recording studios, private rooms and open streets is awkwardly accompanied by a screen to one side on which a voice-over describes an early cave painting of man and bison but cannot deduce the balance of power.
At the end, we see a film of bison over-running their captors, and each character in the play grows horns when things go wrong. The overall sense is one of disappointment and frustration in early middle age, with confessional speeches about underage sex and parental snubs.
A lot of it is enjoyable and funny, if only fleetingly so, and there’s a good speech for Brian about the seven ages of man in terms of bus travel. Two hit men suddenly materialise. One of them uses the word “sex” to mean “great.” “Are you trying to re-contextualise that word, like wicked or sick?” asks the other. He might have added “fit.” At the very least, Neilson keeps us guessing, and that’s rare.