The outside man

His stock is fast rising, but Anthony Neilson chafes at the embrace of the mainstream. British theat

Anthony Neilson has a swaggering reputation - partly gained through the scorching "in-yer-face" plays (Penetrator, The Censor, Stitching) with which he helped set the agenda for 1990s drama, and partly through media appearances in which he has loftily decreed what is right and wrong with British theatre. While one might bridle at his arrogance (he has even described himself as a "loud-mouthed wanker"), he is usually right on the money. "There's only one commandment worth a damn [in the theatre]," he wrote this spring in his hellraising manifesto for theatre, "and it's this: thou shalt not bore."

Neilson seldom does. For me, he is the most exciting playwright in Britain. It's no longer the blood-and-sperm excitement of those early plays, which inspired the likes of Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill to pick up their quills. Neilson, now 40, is a restless experimenter whose recent twin obsessions have been with expressing psychological states on stage and using the techniques of vaudeville to do so. (Few other playwrights invoke Bruce Forsyth in interview.) The results have included the multi-award-winning Edinburgh International Festival hit The Wonderful World of Dissocia, a Lewis Carroll-style ride through dissociative identity disorder, and its brilliant sequel, Realism, which turned the head of a middle-aged slacker inside out and put his wild flights of fancy on stage.

The supposedly arrogant Neilson hasn't pro mised anything so audacious with his latest piece. God in Ruins - what a mouth-watering title for a Christmas show! - which opened at the Soho Theatre in London on 29 November, is his first commission for the Royal Shakespeare Company. That is partly what's bothering him when we meet. One of theatre's knee-jerk outsiders, he chafes at the embrace of the mainstream: "The industry still bugs me, and I bug myself, and I don't want to settle." On top of that, the five-month development period the RSC allotted was too long, he says. "My stuff is designed to be done in the heat of the moment, with a certain passion. It's drive-yourself-to-the-point-of-breakdown theatre writing." Neilson's scripts are created in rehearsal, in cahoots with the actors - a precarious process, with no guarantees, that established theatres find hard to accommodate.

His real reason for playing down God in Ruins seems to be that the RSC gave him 11 male actors to work with. Neilson is eager to the point of paranoia to establish that an all-male cast "is not something I would have chosen. I'm worried that an audience might wonder: What point is he trying to make? And the answer is: Not really any. Mind you, I have found it very difficult not to be sucked into making some statement about men." The writing process has shown him that "whilst my opinion of individual men is fine, my opinion of us en masse is a little cynical". The promotional blurb for God in Ruins, written by the author, invites sympathy for the single British bloke: "Yes, Kylie Minogue is in the Doctor Who special, but otherwise these men will spend Christmas Day totally alone."

Crisis of masculinity aside, the play's real subject is "the gulf between the greatest aspirations of humanity and what we are", Neilson says. He explores this by invoking video games and virtual worlds such as the online phenomenon Second Life: Neilson is keenly interested in "the ability of people to be other than they are on the internet". In the real world, his hero is the producer of a reality show called Chimp Monastery. Neilson hopes that the ridiculous title will help to illustrate the vastness of the journey "from Michelangelo's David to some guy caught up in the media making programmes that are possibly the nadir of human achievement".

A final ingredient in the mix is A Christmas Carol, on which God in Ruins is loosely based. Neilson gravitated towards Dickens's festive classic partly because "I find people being really sour at Christmas funny", but also because it overlaps with his interest in dramatising the inner life. "If you remove the actual physical ghosts that take Scrooge to Christmas Past or Future, it becomes an internal and psychological story." Neilson's refit will rework the original tale root and branch, not least because "nowadays, somebody who thinks Christmas is shit is more likely to be applauded. So what are the aspects of a person we would find really objectionable today? And what do we believe about redemption?"

Neilson takes these questions seriously, as he does Christmas in general. "I like people going to the theatre at Christmas. It taps into something. There is still this Dickensian notion of Christmas. It's a time we feel we should be with loved ones - and when we assess how many loved ones we have. It's one of the few moments we stop and take stock." This seasonal sensitivity may be why he has now written three Christmas plays - the second of which, 2002's black farce The Lying Kind, notoriously flopped at the Royal Court. I ask if he is haunted by this ghost of his own Christmas past. Might that explain his modesty about God in Ruins? "No," he says. "That was different. I wasn't allowed to work in my own way back then. The only way that this could be akin to The Lying Kind is if it gets torn to shreds by the critics and hardly anybody comes."

That seems unlikely. Neilson's stock is fast rising: he has a new play at the Royal Court next spring. But he is not complacent. "Stay a moving target. Keep people interested. Keep yourself interested. Don't get too comfortable. I don't want to go, 'That's it now', and settle in. I'm just looking at ways to get better or more interesting."

And interesting is the very least that theatre needs to be. "It should be exciting," he says, getting excited. "It should be causing a fuss. There should be big arguments, and the public should get the sense that no, we're not just sitting about on our arses being complacent, writing for our own audiences about a narrow range of concerns." He's doing that loud-mouthed wanker thing again, and he doesn't care. "Theatre," says Neilson, "should be a bit punkier in spirit."

"God in Ruins" is at the Soho Theatre, London W1, until 5 January 2008. www.sohotheatre.com

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic