Go and take a look at your Facebook wall. Or maybe your Twitter feed. Or better still hop over to Storify and knock up something on Alex Ferguson or Ariel Castro. There’s plenty of time, Narrative’s run is over and it doesn’t look like they’re selling playtexts. Anthony Neilson’s intricate new play has dissolved into the foam from whence it was devised: so if you haven’t seen it, you’ve missed it. Go and spend a few minutes poking about on social media instead.
You’ll come back full of stories, or with the thin traces of stories that are begun, half-begun, ignored, liked, retweeted, contributed to, inflated, inflamed and fabricated. Donnie K is engaged to someone you’ve never met, that girl from school who smelled of menthol cigarettes has had enough of being fucked around, your cousin has a new job, there’s a petition about Syria, an off-colour joke about Rolf’s Cartoon Club. People are making and re-making their own images, sharing their own stories against a shifting backdrop of the multiplicity of stories that jostle around them. But how deep does your knowledge of them go? How long do you remember the stories, or the half-stories? How much of them do you take in? In terms of the lived engagement with the lives of others Facebook and Twitter remind me of Toys R Us. Everything’s out there, everything’s under one roof (and there are millions of millions), but somehow it’s all a bit intangible, inconsequential. It’s a bit of a warehouse; it’s a bit of a mess.
Narrative was promoted with the words ‘form is dead’, but though there is a certain formlessness to its tumult of stories and slippy narrative construction, it is the death of content that Neilson’s play announces most resolutely. Against a set by Garance Marneur that resembles a coffee bar in the TARDIS console room, conversations spill out over one another: a man is handed a mysterious package, an actor auditions for a commercial, a couple crumbles, another couple crumbles, another actor calls his agent to find out whether his character in some Downton-esque rubbish has consumption. Their connection to one another is initially oblique, though as they progress in their higgledy-piggledy fashion they begin to crash or coalesce, adding one another one by one through mutual friends.
The characters live in a paranoid relationship with closure and completeness. A young actor who is handed a photograph of an anonymous winking anus finds his life begin to unravel as the possibilities of its meaning, its enigmatic obscenity, drive him round the bend. It’s like The Crying of Lot 49. But with an arsehole. Fragments of the world around them suddenly collide with the narrative, an oddly moving rendition of the then achingly current David Bowie single ‘Where Are We Now’ comes complete with an advert for its iTunes download. Where are we now? We’re here, where our most intimate thoughts compete for screen-space with targeted advertisements. It’s moments like this that really arrest you, moments where Neilson’s wit feels sharp, brave and original, that Narrative is at its best.
Most striking of all is the sudden murder of a young woman by her friend. It seems to come from nowhere, it seems to mean nothing, and the consequences of that meaninglessness are terrible. The play is prefaced by a short slideshow depicting what is proposed as the first ever narrative. A man is engaged in combat with a bison, its entrails spill in loops across the ground. The man appears to be mortally wounded, and if he is, our narrator informs us, then this is the first story. It has a time-scale, an ordering of events, a result. When the motiveless murder occurs 40,000-odd years later, the bison’s horns, or horns very like them, sprout from the head of our murderer. She becomes trapped in an echoing limbo, a place beyond stories where she is excluded from the world.
It’s a fascinating conceit, compressing images of scapegoating, social exclusion, the language of the bestial deployed by the press and judiciaries, but it also leads to a misstep that drives a bitter, slightly dangerous dart into Neilson’s otherwise stunning story-scape. When the murderess, who reaches out to her victim through a spectral Skype call, is told to essentially fabricate a story of childhood sexual abuse to regain the approval of society, to make her story comprehensible, Neilson and his performers are playing a dangerous game, and playing it carelessly. Fabricated accusations of abuse exist, of course, and it is theatres role to address all facets of human experience, but it requires more time, more attention and a greater acknowledgement of the issue’s complexity before it can be flung out in front of an audience. Bizarrely, in a piece which elsewhere revels in multiplicities and contradictions, this grim message feels neatly wrapped up for the journey home.
Lift it out, though, and this is very exciting stuff. Laying the weight of history on the thin intricacies of the age of near-universal social media integration and peering down at the splinters, Narrative is a drama for an age of stories and friendships stored in the cloud, where their apparent permanence occludes how profoundly transitory they have become. It’s a sharply written, coolly constructed and laudably ambitious piece of theatre.