Interview: Matt Smith on Brexit, Radiohead, and 'career suicide'
Matt Smith, the star of Anthony Neilson's new play 'Unreachable', has described it as 'career suicide'. Presumably he was joking, but word from early previews suggested he wasn't wrong, with the cast apparently having to go on script-in-hand and prompt each other in early performances.
Yet whatever freaky magic Neilson works in his notorious improv-based creative process had certainly kicked in by 'Unreachable' press night. If anything this comedy about a bunch of dysfunctional weirdos trying to make a film is one of the more straightforward plays programmed at the Court in recent years.
Maxim (Smith) is a precious, unworldly film director whose last film won the Palme D'Or. He has been given a substantial budget to make its follow up, a bleak dystopian drama. However, he seems to be rather ambivalent, being rather more fixated on trying to capture the perfect light. But he's not finding it, and as ‘Unreachable’ starts he's declared to his cynical, long-suffering producer Anastasia (Amanda Drew) that he wants to switch the shoot from digital to film, at enormous expense and complication.
‘Unreachable’ is a play about the creative process; it may even be that it's a play about the creation of ‘Unreachable’, with Maxim a proxy for Neilson, and Maxim's absurd, quixotic methods and goals a cinematic equivalent of Neilson’s famously perverse process.
Which may sound a bit up its own arse, but a bit of pretension is welcome in a funny, well-performed comedy that is, if anything, just a splash too cosy. Though there’s an agreeably livewire air to it – particularly from the winningly childlike, erratic Smith – it also feels a bit like a teatime appropriate sitcom.
Or it does until it gets an almighty shot in the arm just before the interval with the arrival of Jonjo O'Neill's unstable leading man Ivan, aka The Brute. It is a remarkable and ridiculous performance: full-bore, fourth wall-breaking, sweat-saturated, like the ungodly, platinum wigged, Eurotrash love child of ‘Blackadder’s character Lord Flashheart and Will Ferrell’s nefarious Zoolander villain Mugatu. But more mental than that sounds. And those were cameos: he’s a lead character.
It’s hard to exactly describe without getting excessively wanky, but O’Neill feels key to ‘Unreachable’ because it’s hard to imagine another play would survive him doing this. Genuinely anarchic, almost kamikaze, the destabilising effect of his performance feels like a virtue: the rest of the cast stop to stare at him as he hits full rant, most of them actively corpsing (or appearing to). There is the sense that he has hit upon a style of performance so fanatically intense that this improvised play about the elusiveness of artistry must bend to accommodate it. If the light exists, it’s inside him, and in the glorious last couple of minutes when designer Chloe Lamford spunks her entire set budget on an ending that filled me with actual, genuine wonder.