Neilson, black-clad and serious, frowns thoughtfully as Jess Peet (in her first professional role as Alice) goes through her paces: eat me, drink me, curiouser and curiouser. “Alice,” he says, “is one of those things you can’t quantify, but if you do it right, I think it lodges somewhere quite deep in you and remains with you for the rest of your life. It certainly did with me.”
Anyone who saw Neilson’s play, The Wonderful World of Dissocia – a hit at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2004 – will recognise its influences on him. And not just him, he says. “I was thinking about how influential Alice has been on so many staples of British culture. In some ways, it’s the great-great-grandfather of British comedy, that vein of surrealism that goes right the way through from Spike Milligan and Monty Python to the Mighty Boosh.
“What’s beginning to happen, I think, is that I’m making what Monty Python would have made of Alice. You can hear it in the music,” – and we do, when composer Nick Powell leads the cast in a singalong round the piano to learn the Mad Hatter’s Song. “I think I’ve been writing lyrics a bit like Eric Idle, but to me that sounds like fun.”
When I ask him about having written his own adaptation, he warns me against using past tense. Neilson’s modus operandi is to make a show from start to finish in the six-week rehearsal period. He brought in new scenes that morning. Alice isn’t finished. The deadline is opening night. As processes go, it terrifies some and energises others. At its
best, it creates work which is original and moving, with a kind of raw energy.
“There’s still a lot of resistance to working in this way,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a crazy thing, in fact I think it’s kind of crazy the other way round. When you look at the new research that’s coming out about how to stimulate creativity, it’s interesting how many of the things we’ve accidentally been doing. Sometimes we just sit around and play musical instruments, sometimes it’s not working and we just go home. You’re playing, the process should be anarchic. Routine and predictability are not things you want in a room if you’re trying to be as creative as you possibly can.
“In theatre, there’s a culture of relentless competence, work which is fine, good, and yet you walk away from the live experience pretty much completely unaffected. Ultimately, I think if more people worked in the way I work, you’d have a higher strike rate of really interesting things.” He wants his work to pack a visceral punch, to be unbridled, to “capture the anarchy of life”.
Growing up in Edinburgh where both his parents were actors, Neilson’s formative experiences of theatre were not like other people’s. “You could argue that my entire life was a formative theatrical experience, both in theatres and at home. There were not many filters, put it that way. Watching something that your parents are in, your life and fictional things become melded in quite a strange way. I’ve always pulled away from the idea of theatre as simply a cerebral experience, I want to make it feel deeply personal, both for myself and for people watching it.”
Neilson spent a year at the Welsh College of Music and Drama before packing it in, then entered a BBC young playwrights competition and won. He is known for work which is controversial and unflinching. His first play, Normal: The Dusseldorf Ripper, at the Fringe in 1991, was about a serial killer, and set the tone for work like Penetrator, Stitching, and The Censor. The reputation, he says, is not entirely deserved.
“Contrary to popular opinion, I’ve never taken much relish in making people feel uncomfortable. I’ve actually done quite a lot of family-friendly work. When I did Get Santa! (a mapcap children’s show for Christmas at the Royal Court in 2010) the reviews inevitably opened with a paragraph saying “The guy who did plays about anal rape and coprophilia is now doing a kids’ show!” The reviews were generally good, but the damage had sort of been done by that point.”
All the same, one can’t quite imagine him doing a classic children’s Christmas show, and Alice is not one. Lewis Carroll’s story is, he says, much more anarchic, its heroine is feisty and decidedly un-Victorian. “Dorothy’s trying to get home as soon as she goes to Oz. Alice isn’t trying to get home, her hallmark is her endless curiosity.”
Adaptations often make the mistake of imposing a linear narrative where none exists. His version is “pretty old school” in his faithfulness to the book, but with his own riffs. “At its best, you shouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It does have it’s own internal anti-logic, and I can see how that works. At one point, we were improvising with the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and one of the actors shoved a cake in someone’s face. It was interesting because I immediately thought, no, you can’t do that. It can get as bizarre as it likes, but it can’t be just a cake in the face.
“Weirdly, the structure of Alice is actually an incredibly modern structure. It has no resolution, it doesn’t tie things together. I have been getting the feeling recently that the old unities of narrative are feeling a little strange to people. Narrative structure is a reflection of life, and I think people led very hermetic, contained lives at one point, they would probably be married once, they would have children with that person and they would have one career. Our lives are not as hermetic as they were.
“Even most contemporary plays are adhering to a model that was developed in the 1950s or before. It’s not about being experimental, it’s about finding a new mainstream. I’ve believed for quite a long time that we are on the cusp, if only we would embrace it, of perhaps the most fundamental change in the idea of narrative since Greek times. And I think Alice will endure where a lot of things don’t because it moves in that way.”
In a sense, inviting Neilson to tackle Alice is a picture in microcosm of David Greig’s mission in his first season as artistic director at the Lyceum: shake things up, bring in new voices, without alienating the core audience. Neilson is quick to reassure me that he’s still making a family Christmas show and it will still be fun. “I’m commited to the idea, especially at Christmas, of giving kids a really good, fun experience. For a lot of kids it will be their first experience of theatre, and I feel I have a real obligation to give them something magic and interesting, to be a good memory for them.”
*Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from 26 November until 31 December, www.lyceum.org.uk