Snoo Wilson died, suddenly and unexpectedly, from a heart attack on 3rd July 2013. He collapsed in Ashford railway station, as he hurried to catch the London train, with his boxer dog, Frieda. Despite the efforts of the paramedics, he never regained consciousness. Snoo had been living in Dungeness, Kent, for the last few months of his life. He loved everything about Dungeness and had just established a new colony of bees, which delighted him. He had seemed to be in good health and had not complained about chest pains, or breathlessness although he suffered from an irregular heartbeat - arrhythmia. He was taking medication for this, and according to his GP, his most recent hospital check-up was fine.
In the weeks and months leading up to his death, Snoo and his wife, Ann, were frequently visited by their three children, Jo, Patrick, David, their partners and their granddaughter, Isabel, as well as their many good friends. Snoo was working on several projects: a new play for the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, as well as the final edits of his film about Betchman, the poet-tuned-spy in Ireland in the Second World War, and most ironically of all, Revelations, a freewheeling fantasy about an obituarist and Oscar Wilde.
Snoo Wilson obituary
Playwright whose anarchic works were filled with vividly imagined characters
The Guardian, Friday 5 July 2013 18.57 BST
Snoo Wilson's The Glad Hand, staged at the Royal Court in 1978, was praised by the Observer's Robert Cushman for its 'Stoppardian exhilaration'. Photograph: Chris Davies/ArenaPal
Snoo Wilson, who has died suddenly aged 64, was in the vanguard of the young playwrights revolutionising British theatre in the two decades after 1968, but Snoo was a very different kettle of fish from the others. While David Edgar, Howard Brenton and David Hare were often overtly political, Snoo was a Marxist "tendance Groucho"; more subtly subversive and humorous. Sometimes the surface frivolity of his work made people think he wasn't serious, but he was always trying to mine under the surface of things, to allow the subconscious to drive his imagination. Snoo used fiercely imagined characters in comic and often savage works that nevertheless, in the best plays, demonstrated an insouciant knowledge of dramatic structure. He was not a believer in naturalism.
Throughout his career Snoo refused to accept that mere reality was all there was – if so, it was too sad and he refused to believe it. He encouraged audiences to go on a rollercoaster ride into the beyond, albeit with engaging and recognisable characters. It was not whimsy. He was a one-off, quite unlike any other dramatist.
He was born Andrew James Wilson in Reading – Snoo was a childhood nickname – and was educated at Bradfield college, Berkshire, where his father was a teacher and where Snoo obtained a glider pilot's licence. His mother was the headteacher of nearby Downe House. Snoo went on to the University of East Anglia to read American studies under Malcolm Bradbury and graduated in 1969.
Snoo Wilson encouraged audiences to go on a rollercoaster ride into the beyond
In 1968 he was a founder member, with Hare and Tony Bicât, of Portable Theatre. In Pignight (1971), toured by Portable Theatre and directed by Snoo, a paranoid East End gangster and his prostitute girlfriend are sent to guard a battery pig farm inhabited by the ghosts of its former tenants, and are visited, with fatal consequences, by a German prisoner of war/farm worker who has escaped from a local asylum. It is a vivid and emetic portrait of rural change and urban corruption. Lighter and hilarious, The Pleasure Principle (1973), directed by Hare, was a success at the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs and worked on the strategy of always putting a bomb, sometimes literally, under the audience's expectations.
After he had worked as a script editor for the BBC's Play for Today strand, Snoo's plays The Soul of the White Ant (1976) and Vampire (1977), both of which I directed at the Bush theatre, west London, were critically praised. The former was a murkily atmospheric and hilarious Afrikaner ghost story that had the racist biologist Eugène Marais (Clive Merrison) return from the dead to offer atonement to Lynda Marchal (now Lynda La Plante) for the murder of her houseboy. The latter play took the audience from repression and violence in a 19th-century Welsh vicarage, via Freud and Jung, to punks in Kew Gardens, and made an impressive thesis of societal blood-sucking. It ended with Enoch Powell (Merrison again) emerging ghoulishly from a coffin to utter his famous "rivers of blood" speech.
Snoo also wrote plays for larger stages commissioned by the major subsidised companies, though not the National Theatre. The Royal Shakespeare Company had success with his play The Beast (1974), which portrayed the magician Aleister Crowley as a fantasising and seedy hedonist.
The Observer's Robert Cushman praised the "Stoppardian exhilaration" of Snoo's The Glad Hand (1978) at the Royal Court, in which a South African tycoon, played by Antony Sher, employs a troupe of actors and sails an oil tanker through the Bermuda Triangle, hoping to conjure up the antichrist and kill him in a wild west gunfight. Sher also took the main role as a clairvoyant in Philip Saville's 1985 film of Snoo's screenplay Shadey. In that year Snoo was a successful, widely published and prominent writer. His libretto for Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, in which the character of Public Opinion was clearly modelled on Margaret Thatcher, was performed by English National Opera.
But tastes in the theatre change with the political climate. Artistic directors began to look to a dour and nihilistic political theatre to reflect a more despairing zeitgeist, or to more commercial projects to keep their doors open. It was not for another 10 years that Snoo's second golden period began, back at the Bush theatre, under Jenny Topper's management, where Simon Stokes brilliantly directed The Number of the Beast (1982), More Light (1987) and Darwin's Flood (1994). The last of these proposed, ironically of course, Darwin's worst nightmare on his deathbed: that God actually may have existed and planted the fossil evidence himself. Jesus (James Nesbitt) appeared hilariously in the guise of a cycling, wisecracking Ulsterman who seduces Mrs Darwin, before a giant ark breaks through into the back garden. Somewhere in there having fun were Darwin's appalling sister, Friedrich Nietzsche and a dominatrix Madonna – the original one, not the singer. It is a wonderfully witty play of firecracker imagination and humour.
With that kind of ambition things occasionally went awry, and Snoo needed an editor and a strong and sympathetic director. He never shirked the challenge of rewriting, though many of us nearly drowned under the weight of his fecundity.
Playwrights go out of fashion faster than other writers. They are dependent still on a director-led theatre that has a need for fresh reviving talent. In recent years Snoo suffered savage reviews that hurt him deeply and only demonstrated how isolated he was, going so singularly his own way. But things also come full circle and he never gave up. Snoo was busy to the end of his life. He had begun a commissioned play for the Theatre Royal in Plymouth. His play about the painter Egon Schiele, Reclining Nude with Black Stockings, was performed in 2010 at the Arcola theatre. His recently finished play Revelations is rich and personal and of the moment; it is also horribly prescient about a death that has come far too soon. There are plays still to be performed and many are still in print, waiting to be rediscovered and reworked by future generations.
Snoo was a warm and generous man, a loyal friend and as wonderfully eccentric as his work. He laughed a lot, occasionally at his own jokes – a transgression that was easily forgiven.
He is survived by his wife, the journalist Ann McFerran, whom he married in 1976, his daughter, Jo, and two sons, Patrick and David.
• Snoo (Andrew James) Wilson, playwright, born 2 August 1948; died 3 July 2013
Snoo Wilson kept bees in his garden in Clapham and knew them all by name
“The hole that the absurdly premature death of Snoo Wilson leaves in the British Theatre and in the lives of his family and his friends will never be filled, because there never will be and never was anyone like him. His collected plays constitute a glorious corybantic frieze covering vast tracts of human experience, filtered through an imagination that took in anthropology, history, physics, alchemy, mathematics, painting, the occult. He was political, but in the way that Aristophanes was political – rude, lewd, uproarious, anarchic; he plugged himself and his characters into other worlds, other dimensions, the Neptunian, the lunar, the chthonic, the galactic, all in a riotous carnival spirit, knockabout, grotesque, strutting their stuff in a kind of metaphysical music hall.
The one thing that seemed barely to interest him at all was psychology, which put him beyond the pale for many reviewers; en plus, he committed the fatal error of being unclassifiable, which in this country condemns a man to the margins. Audiences never had any difficulty with his work, which was instantly recognizable as the stuff of dreams, freely leaping about in time and space, swarming with creatures from the id nimbly outwitted by the representatives of the ego. Each play was an inter-cranial epic, a succession of impossibly tall stories which liberated the theatre from plodding linearity and mendacious cause and effect. They were shocking, funny and often surprisingly tender.
And they were a perfect reflection of the man who created them. Madcap, emotional, anarchic, erudite, in touch with the universe, bewildered by pettiness, fantastical, curious, practical, noble, mischievous, good-hearted. He made his own bread, he kept bees in his garden in Clapham and knew them all by name, he had instant rapport with any animal he ever met, he devoured books, always having five on the go at once, he cast astrological charts, he laughed till he wept, he danced till he dropped, he knew everything about everything. He was, in his madly quirky way, a great man, a Titan, a bit of a genius. How I loved that man.
Boogions-nous? he used to say, and we did, all of us who knew him, we boogied blissfully away under the inspiration of his great sense of the infinitude of possibilities contained in a human life.
We worked together again and again, he and I. I acted in his plays, I directed them; we worked on screenplays that were never filmed and on shows that were never staged; we sped across Sicily to recce a film about never to be shot film about Aleister Crowley. We drove wildly about from Monreale to Enna and Taormina; we ascended Etna, and each of these places shook him to the core with the seismic power of history and the life lived in them, until it was impossible to know which century he and I were alive in.
I so wanted to spend our 80th, our 90th, our 100th birthdays in each other’s company, till, snowy-bearded and full of years, he would somehow merge into the landscape, become a great craggy, kindly rock. Instead, racing for his train, hurtling up the station stairs, he suddenly cast aside his human form, impulsively shuffling off his mortal coil right there and then, leaping up into the empyrean, where I see him now, sky-walking, high-stepping from star to star, constellation to constellation, roaring with delight at the cosmic joke he had so relished during his time on earth.”
Snoo Wilson: Playwright whose work was fuelled by his chaotic visions of the absurd and surreal
Snoo Wilson, who has died of a heart attack at 64, was an unruly and unpredictable playwright who never achieved the popular approval his great originality and talent warranted. He was like the alternative Tom Stoppard, clever and witty, but with a pronounced enthusiasm for the supernatural, the occult and the bizarre.
In Who's Who he registered his hobbies as bee-keeping and space travel, an indication of the range of his interests from the biologically specific to the globally adventurous. One of his best plays, Soul of the White Ant (1976), was a steamy study of the pioneering work done by Eugene Marais among termites, cloaked in mud and mysticism, but with a metaphorical resonance in matters of life-giving and life-taking.
The role of Marais was taken by Simon Callow, a regular collaborator; other actors of the calibre of Antony Sher, Julie Walters, Corin Redgrave, Miriam Margolyes, Tony Rohr, Billie Whitelaw and Richard Pasco were consistently attracted to scenarios that treated theatre as a place to discover "the other life." These explorations often implicated such controversial super-human characters as Aleister Crowley, the Virgin Mary, Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin.
Wilson was no mystical freak or way-out hippie himself, though he did claim to have seen a flying saucer in his Clapham, south London, back garden. He approached theatre as a prosaic and practical art form, he said, "where you could play a game of Let's Pretend the Physical World isn't as Solid as the Daily Telegraph says it is." For although he was labelled a "fringe" dramatist, Wilson was a genuine product of the intellectual underground in 1968 and someone who thought of theatre not as a place to preach to the already converted élite but to move his audience into another dimension of experience; he was a revivalist preacher, not a sermonising one.
In 1968, in response to the Paris événements, the American impresario Jim Haynes founded the Arts Lab in Drury Lane and, a year later, when that closed down, Wilson was in the vanguard of the sprouting new arts lab and campus theatre circuit. David Hare and Tony Bicât, founded Portable Theatre, and were joined by Howard Brenton and Wilson in creating a sort of travelling terrorist unit of new theatre that, along with groups like the Freehold, the People Show and Pip Simmons, which were more influenced by art school and off-Broadway, created the second major new wave of theatre in this country in the 1970s following the John Osborne revolution at the Royal Court in 1956.
Towards the end of the 1970s Wilson was on a lecture tour of Australia with Osborne, who accused him of promulgating the myth that the English theatre was reborn in the armpits of Time Out. Typically, Wilson enjoyed the joke – well, he had recently married the journalist and Time Out theatre editor, Ann McFerran – but was soon conducting a friendly correspondence with Osborne after a revival of the senior playwright's coruscating Inadmissible Evidence inspired a new play he wrote for the ICA.
Wilson was a university wit, but not from Oxbridge. "Snoo" was one of several childhood nicknames, the one which stuck. He was the son of two teachers, Leslie Wilson and his wife Pamela Mary, née Boyle, and, after the co-educational Bradfield College (where his father taught), he attended the University of East Anglia, where he studied with Malcolm Bradbury and Lorna Sage, taking a degree in English and American Studies.
His first performed play, in 1968, was a radical rewrite of Shakespeare's Pericles with the cast acting literally out of their prams – those prams became boats, chariots, or beds, as required – and replacing the salve of reunion with the bitterness of chaos. The film producer and critic Peter Ansorge, an important early champion of his work, pointed out that Wilson was not just a wacky one-off but a serious absurdist (Ionesco was a key influence) whose surrealism was a visionary by-product of global, spiritual and metaphysical concerns.
This much emerged in two stunning plays for Portable: Pignight (1969) was a prophetic parable of pollution and waste on a Lincolnshire farm overrun by a criminal gang; and Blowjob (1971) pictured skinheads and a schizoid girlfriend running riot across the land, some dialogue conducted in black-out to indicate the girl's condition. In the first play, a pig had its throat cut, in the second, a dead dog was thrown on the stage (raw meat figured large).
He hit his stride with two ambitious three-act plays, Vampire (1972), which investigated the concept of vampirism as a Victorian melodrama, a study of the suffragettes in a modern funeral parlour with Enoch Powell rising from a coffin to deliver his speech about English cities becoming alien territories; and The Pleasure Principle (1973), directed in the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs by David Hare, a dramatised debate about the nature of love in a capitalist society with a deep strain of melancholy – and dancing gorillas.
His Aleister Crowley play The Beast (1974) led to a fruitful period as dramaturge at the Royal Shakespeare Company, followed by a stint as script editor on the BBC's Play for Today. An ambitious but ill-fated look at the Kray Brothers, England England (1978), with a great rock score by Kevin Coyne, was followed by his major Royal Court play, The Glad Hand (1978), in which the antichrist was pursued through the Bermuda Triangle during the cowboy strike of 1886; Max Stafford-Clark directed, sumptuously.
Since that watershed, Wilson's career was a fitful process of consolidation and recovery, littered with more screenplays than were actually filmed – the best were Philip Saville's Shadey (1985), a black comedy with elements of incest, transexuality and insanity, and Robert Young's Eichmann (2007), based on the manuscripts of the Nazi war criminal's interrogation before he was tried and hanged in Israel.
The Bush Theatre in Shepherd's Bush was his second home, eliciting two remarkable small-scale extravaganzas, More Light (1987), which convened Giordano Bruno with Elizabeth I, Doctor Dee and a female Shakespeare in heaven in 1600, and Darwin's Flood (1994) in which the great man's last night is interrupted by Nietzsche in a wheelbarrow, Christ on a bike and Mary Magdalene dropping from a helicopter with a bag of sex aids.
A 1994 comedy of royal manners, HRH, a two-hander for the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson, was revived in the West End in 1997 but despite drawing some cheeky parallels between Wallis and the recently deceased Princess Diana it failed to deliver Wilson the commercial success he was perhaps wrongly craving.
Despite many disappointments, Wilson always remained a cheerful and busy operator, writing and reading ceaselessly, and teaching with distinction at the University of California at San Diego; in 1992, he was made an honorary Texan. He also wrote several novels (including one about Crowley) and two librettos, for Gounod's La Colombe in 1983 and, in 1984, a satirical and very funny new version of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Undergound for English National Opera at the Coliseum.
Andrew James Wilson, playwright: born Reading 2 August 1948; married 1976 Ann McFerran (one daughter, two sons); died Ashford, Kent 3 July 2013.
TUESDAY 09 JULY 2013
Snoo Wilson, Surrealistic British Playwright, Dies at 64
Snoo Wilson, a British playwright and director whose surreal work slyly critiqued social injustices and conventions, died on Wednesday. He was 64.
The cause was a heart attack, said his wife, the journalist Ann McFerran. He lived in London and in Dungeness, on the south coast of England.
Mr. Wilson was a contemporary of British playwrights like David Hare, David Edgar and Howard Brenton, but his work became less obviously political and often more humorous and bizarre than theirs.
A versatile writer, Mr. Wilson wrote film scripts, novels and musicals, including one in which he collaborated with the singer and songwriter Ray Davies of the Kinks.
But he was most known for his plays, which often had a madcap style combining science with the occult, eschewing naturalism, and sometimes obliterating the boundary between life and death.
In his 1994 play “Darwin’s Flood,” for example, a dying Charles Darwin faces evidence of creationism and a biblical ark while a Scottish Jesus seduces his wife. Nietzsche and a dominatrix also make appearances.
“The Beast” (1974) depicted the occultist Aleister Crowley as an unrepentant hedonist but not “the wickedest man in the world,” as the popular press called him in the early 20th century. (Mr. Wilson also wrote a fictional autobiography of Mr. Crowley, “I, Crowley: Almost the Last Confession of the Beast,” published in 1997.)
In “The Soul of the White Ant” (1976), in which Mr. Wilson condemned apartheid, the South African naturalist Eugène Marais rises from the grave to offer atonement to a South African woman who kills her servant after they have an affair.
In a 1983 review in The New York Times of Mr. Wilson’s play “Our Lord of Lynchville,” Mel Gussow described him as “a satiric fantasist, often creating bizarre and anachronistic worlds that bear a striking resemblance to reality once removed.”
Andrew James Wilson was born in Reading, England, on Aug. 2, 1948. (Snoo, which rhymes with blue, was a family nickname.) He studied English and American literature under Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia, graduating in 1969.
In 1971 the experimental Portable Theater produced his play “Pignight,” a jarring look at city slickers taking care of a British pig farm who run afoul of a disturbed German farmworker. His plays were also produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court Theater and the New York Theater Studio.
Mr. Wilson wrote screenplays for “Shadey” (1985), a comedy about a clairvoyant who wants to have a sex change operation, and “Eichmann” (2007), about the interrogation of Adolf Eichmann.
The musical he wrote with Mr. Davies, “80 Days,” based on Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days,” had its premiere in San Diego in 1988 under the direction of Des McAnuff.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Wilson is survived by a daughter, Jo Wilson; two sons, Patrick and David; two grandchildren; and a brother, Anthony Wilson.
His play “Reclining Nude With Black Stockings,” about the Austrian painter Egon Schiele and his mentor Gustav Klimt, was performed at the Arcola Theater in London three years ago, in 2010.
By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK
Published: July 7, 2013
Michael Coveney: Tales of Bob and Snoo Wilson at the Manchester International Festival
I was on my way to see Robert Wilson's opening production at the Manchester International Festival when the news came through that the playwright Snoo Wilson (no relation) had died of a heart attack on Ashford station.
The news was as tragic and unexpected as was The Old Woman at the Palace Theatre a few hours later. And I couldn't help but remember the beautiful appreciation of Bob Wilson's work Snoo once wrote in a theatre magazine I was editing; unlike most of his contemporaries (he was 64 when he died) on the London fringe of the 1970s and 1980s, he took a keen intellectual interest in Einstein on the Beach and A Letter for Queen Victoria.
With David Hare and Tony Bicat, Snoo founded one of the key touring companies of the early fringe, Portable Theatre, and wrote some literally explosive short plays that mixed violence, horror and farce in much the same sort of way Bob Wilson does - though far more artfully - in The Old Woman, which is a story of hunger, madness and paranoia.
Snoo was as clever as Tom Stoppard and as funny as Alan Bennett, and knew more about most things than
any playwright of his generation. He was particularly interested in the occult, and wrote a brilliant play about Aleister Crowley - The Number of the Beast - to prove it.
Despite early distinction, though, he never broke through the ranks to popular approval, even though one of his later plays, HRH, about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, was eventually produced in the West End. It wasn't, frankly, all that good, certainly not a patch on the weird and wonderfully extravagant fringe plays about Charles Darwin or biology and mysticism - Soul of the White Ant starring Simon Callow at the old Soho Poly was possibly his masterpiece - that drove critics to distraction and even prompted Bernard Levin to use up his review inventing anagrams of the playwright's name as he didn't believe anyone real existed called Snoo.
He did indeed change his name - to Andy Boyle (his first name was Andrew, his mother's maiden name, Boyle) when writing about other people. But he didn't maintain the pretence for long, coming out as Snoo and reporting the death of Andy Boyle under a bus. I think he was reviewing a play by Adrian Mitchell set on the top deck of a bus (fellatio was committed on the Number 24), and it might well have been that very same bus that did for Andy.
Both Snoo's parents were teachers, and he had a distinguished academic career himself, studying with Lorna Sage at the University of East Anglia and teaching literature and theatre at various institutions both here and in America later in life. He was a dramaturg at the RSC in the mid 1970s and editor of the BBC Play for Today series shortly afterwards.
There were countless screenplays, a handful of novels and a new libretto for Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld (designed by Gerald Scarfe) at the ENO. But I don't think any critic really did him justice, though Ronald Bryden tried his best; and the best of Bryden was always better than anyone else.
Having given up on critics, he decided there was nothing for it but to marry one. He and Ann McFerran, a journalist who was theatre editor of Time Out, were married for over 36 years and had three grown up children. His natural home, though, was the Bush Theatre in the early days, and his colleagues there - Jenny Topper, Simon Stokes, Dusty Hughes, also a former Time Out theatre editor - were his closest friends.
Snoo would have been intrigued by The Old Woman and he certainly would have known Daniil Kharms's strange Kafkaesque short story about a man who murders an old woman, drinks a bottle of vodka and takes the body in a suitcase on a train to dump it in a bog. Of course, he loses the suitcase. And the story is, appropriately enough, unfinished.
Wilson's achingly beautiful, brittle production at the Palace Theatre is performed by the great Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and the film star and Wooster Group stalwart Willem Dafoe. It's done as a sort of silent movie mime, with silhouettes, cut out scenery, stunning visual effects and lighting, both actors in white face.
The trouble is that it's impossible to follow the story from the performance, you have to match up bits and pieces of it with your memory of the original (which you should read before seeing it), so the audience's befuddlement is completely different to how you react normally to absurdism or surrealism in the theatre.
Half way through one scene, for instance, you realise that Dafoe is now the old woman, gabbling away on a Charles Rennie Mackintosh cut-out chair; but is the old woman really in the bright yellow suitcase each actor holds innocently a few minutes later?
This reaction of mine is hopelessly literal and unimaginative. I need Snoo Wilson to deconstruct the imagery for me. But without the Dostoevskyan bleakness and dirtiness in the story, you end up watching a commedia dell'arte that is unevenly projected simply because Baryshnikov is a brilliant physical mime and Dafoe isn't.
The passing of Snoo will no doubt lead to a revival of interest in his work to add to Chris Hislop's recent fringe production of More Light at the Rose, Bankside. This was a timely reminder that while his namesake Bob is a feted superstar on the international festival circuit, Snoo's wayward and provocative brilliance ensured that his appreciative audiences stayed small and special. In that sense, Snoo was the perfect embodiment of what the fringe was originally meant for: rejecting popular approval, going berserk and baiting the critics.
By Michael Coveney • 5 Jul 2013 • London
A writer who marched to the beat of a different drummer, Snoo Wilson was a unique voice in British theatre.
Although regarded as one of the group of post-1960s playwrights making waves in the 1970s and 1980s, Snoo forged a body of work that bears little resemblance to that of his contemporaries, Dusty Hughes, Howard Brenton and Davids Hare and Edgar. It wasn’t that he did not share their indignation or anger at the state of the world in general, and Britain in particular – it was that he often found it blackly funny and genuinely mystifying.
He combined the boundless curiosity of a child with the forensic research of a seasoned academic. It was as if the jet-black humour of Joe Orton, the intellectual impishness of Tom Stoppard and the surrealistic mysticism of Alejandro Jodorowsky had all been tossed into one creative cauldron.
While his work is non-naturalistic and largely fantastical, it is based on concrete principals about the way we live. Unusually prolific, Snoo suffered more than most from the vagaries of theatrical fashion, especially when the New Realists took over. But his plays, unclassifiable and subversive as they are, belong to every age.
The Glad Hand, for example, in which a South African tycoon employs a troupe of actors and sails an oil tanker through the Bermuda Triangle, hoping to conjure up the Antichrist and kill him in a gunfight, is as bizarre and funny now as it was when it first appeared in 1978.
Born Andrew James Wilson in Reading – Snoo was a childhood nickname – he was educated at Bradfield college, Berkshire, where his father was a teacher and where Snoo obtained a glider pilot’s licence. He went on to the University of East Anglia to read American studies under Malcolm Bradbury, and graduated in 1969.
With David Hare and Tony Bicat, Snoo founded one of the key touring companies of the early fringe, Portable Theatre, and wrote short plays that mixed violence, horror and farce before graduating to full-length plays.
He was in thrall to the arcane, the occult and the supernatural, and was an experienced astrologer. Magic often inspired his work, and he wrote various pieces about Aleister Crowley, including two plays and a novel (I, Crowley) about the self-styled Great Beast.
While his work contained mischief and mayhem, it was far from frivolous. The Soul of the White Ant (1976), considered by many to be his masterpiece, was described by Hughes as “a murkily atmospheric and hilarious Afrikaner ghost story”.
Of the later works, The Number of the Beast (1982), More Light (1987) and Darwin’s Flood (1994) are considered his finest achievements. The last of these proposed, ironically of course, Darwin’s nightmare – that God may have existed and planted the fossil evidence himself.
One of Snoo’s late plays, Sabina (1998), which saw him return to the Bush, the theatre with which he is most closely associated, remains the best drama about Carl Jung’s relationship with a young female mental patient Sabina Spielrein, also the subject of Christopher Hampton’s The Talking Cure.
Snoo also wrote novels, screenplays – including Shadey and Eichmann – and even an opera libretto for Orpheus in the Underworld for English National Opera.
A tireless writer, he was working right up to the end. Having recently finished the play Revelations, he had begun another for the Theatre Royal, Plymouth. His play about the painter Egon Schiele, Reclining Nude with Black Stockings, was performed in 2010 at the Arcola Theatre in London.
As a friend, Snoo’s combination of humour, intelligence and bewildered buffoonery was irresistible. His laugh was infectious – a kind of choking boom that made him seem like an overgrown schoolboy.
The supper parties at the Clapham house he shared with his wife of 36 years, journalist Ann McFerran, were extravagantly joyful affairs. Sitting around the table in their huge kitchen in the company of fellow playwrights, fringe producers and actors, Snoo would stir pots and pans like an alchemist, maintaining a running commentary on whatever subject was under discussion.
A big teddy bear of a man, with an unruly mop of hair that – like many of his plays – often seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, he had a bluff and amiable exterior that concealed a formidable intelligence.
Of the many fond memories I have of Snoo, two stand out. The first was the weekend he and Ann, myself and my girlfriend drove from our house in Normandy to watch the last solar eclipse. Snoo had calculated precisely the best vantage point on the map and we were rewarded with a rare astronomical experience.
The second was when I was a commissioning editor on the Evening Standard. I once sent him to do a piece on Sellafield, which had just opened to the public. We concocted a satirical ‘Away Day to Sellafield’ article that was just about to hit the presses when it was spiked by the deputy editor on the grounds that it was too “Guardian”. I rescued the page proof and gave it to Snoo as a souvenir of the “piece that got away”. He found the episode so amusing that he had it framed on the wall of his study.
Snoo (Andrew James) Wilson was born on August 2, 1948 and died on July 3. He is survived by his wife Ann, his daughter Jo, and sons Patrick and David.
Snoo Wilson, who has died aged 64, was the author of bizarre and eclectic plays that combined social and philosophical themes with a dark strain of comedy.
6:19PM BST 04 Aug 2013
In Pig Night (1971), his first major work, a disturbed soldier becomes convinced that pigs are going to take over the world; while in Blow-Job (1971), an Alsatian dog explodes on a darkened stage, having got its jaws around a stick of gelignite. The Times declared such works, which eschewed conventional narrative structure in favour of visual spectacle and the theatre of the absurd, to be a marriage of “physical outrage and savage farce”.
An associate of David Hare, Tony Bicat and Howard Brenton, Wilson was a founding member of Portable Theatre, an early and influential fringe company first conceived by Hare and Bicat in 1968. Portable Theatre toured England for the next four years, performing experimental socialist plays. But while Hare and Brenton had both emerged into the mainstream tradition by the mid-1970s, the bulk of Wilson’s output remained stubbornly uncommercial. The actor Simon Callow, meeting him in 1975 , recalled a man “full of inner preoccupations”, his mind a “very weird kind of crucible out of which curious things emerge”.
In later life the curious became more deeply entrenched, as Wilson deliberately set out to bait his critics and confound audience expectations. He often incorporated ideas from history, myth and science fiction into a single work, uniting a disparate cast of characters. Darwin’s Flood (1994), for example, has Charles Darwin converse with Friedrich Nietzsche, a wheelbarrow-bound syphilitic invalid, and Jesus, represented as a Northern Irish bicyclist who seduces Darwin’s wife.
Stranger still was Moonshine (Hampstead Theatre, 1999) which put a science fiction slant upon the spiritualist life of Arthur Conan Doyle. In search of fairies in the English village of Cottingley, Doyle is transported into an alternative reality ruled over by Abraxas, the Lord of Heaven, who is locked in a cosmic battle with his son Moloch. The play received largely scathing reviews, with Michael Billington in the Guardian dubbing it “guaranteed to empty the theatre faster than a powerful laxative”. In typically bullish spirit, Wilson made a public offer of a refund to anyone who walked out.
Andrew James Wilson was born in Reading, England, on August 2 1948, the son of two teachers, Leslie and Pamela. “Snoo” was an nickname from early childhood – “the nicest thing my family called me”, according to Wilson. After Bradfield College in Berkshire he attended the University of East Anglia, where he read English and American Studies.
He graduated in 1969 and joined Portable Theatre as associate director until 1971. When the company declared bankruptcy the following year he became a dramaturge for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which had commissioned him to write The Beast (1974) as part of its experimental season, and later worked as a script editor on the BBC’s Play For Today.
He wrote numerous radio and television plays for BBC and ITV, and also turned his hand to various adaptations, translating Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld for the English National Opera in 1985. A musical version of Around the World in 80 Days opened in California three years later. “It was meant to be the toast of Broadway,” Wilson later recalled, ruefully, “but the toast got burnt.”
HRH (1997), his only West End play, followed hard of the heels of Always, William May and Jason Sprague’s much-slated musical about the romance between Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, and dealt with broadly the same subject matter. Wilson shifted the focus to the aftermath of Edward’s abdication, with the Duke now ensconced as Governor-General of the Bahamas, distracting himself from his misfortunes by playing George Formby on a ukulele. The play’s contemporary, colloquial dialogue and descriptions of bizarre sexual acts between the two leads – detailing an intimate hiding place for Queen Mary’s jewels – perplexed many critics.
Later Wilson worked for the National Theatre’s youth programme, adapting Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Bedbug for a musical in 2004, and scripting another musical two years later about the life of Felix Powell, author of the lyrics to Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag. His last work to premiere on a London stage was Reclining Nude with Black Stockings (2010).
He married, in 1976, Ann McFerran; she survives him with their three children.
Snoo Wilson, born August 2 1948, died July 4 2013
A Tribute to Snoo Wilson
Everyone at the Bush was greatly saddened to hear the news of Snoo Wilson passing earlier this month. Snoo was a prolific and important playwright and we are so proud to have produced many of his plays here. Director Simon Stokes pays tribute.
SNOO WILSON 1948-2013
Snoo, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack on 3rd July was a truly original, splendidly rambunctious and ‘theatrical’ playwright, whose work spanned nearly twenty-five years of production at the Bush Theatre and who became an emblem, with others, of the journey the Theatre was making from fringe venue in dingy and dangerous Shepherds Bush (this was the early 70’s!) to cutting-edge pioneer of international notice.
With eleven plays produced, more, probably, than any other Bush writer, he became an icon, a seer and a guaranteed entertainer to several generations of Bush theatre-goers and helped define what kind of a theatre the Bush was becoming and what kind of great night out you could have there.
In those days – and for much longer – the Bush was run by triumvirates who organised all duties, artistic, financial, organisational between them and I, as a novitiate Artistic Director along with Luke Randolph, began an exploration of a new art at the hands of Snoo and Dusty Hughes, who was newly joining us as the third Artistic Director and who brought with him, as an introductory gift, his incredible production of Snoo’s The Soul of the White Ant, fresh from success at the Soho Poly – and so started Snoo’s long association with the Bush Theatre, which eventually led to my becoming his occasional director myself.
I had written in the foreword to the published script of Darwin’s Flood that “surreal, vibrantly theatrical, endlessly intelligent, well-researched and informative, Snoo’s plays are overlaid with coarse gags and jousting humour – he is a playwright who fucks with your mind and jovially assaults your senses.”
Snoo himself wrote, “ Theatre is communal, words are its music, plays are individual Deep Memory variations on themes our pre-literate ancestors drew on, I suspect. Ur-anthems…to recount to themselves what it was to be human. It was only ten thousand years ago we began hearing these questions. Who are we? Where are we going?
An unquestionable internationalist with a constantly roving mind and questing spirit, Snoo’s themes were epic and provocative, taking in South African apartheid, American consumption and cultural imperialism, European philosophy, magick and religion everywhere – he knew no boundaries, though his palette was often daubed with the mores of England itself. Of Alastair Crowley and punk rock. Of Queen Elizabeth, the necromancer John Dee and playwright Shakespeare. Of Charles Darwin in triangulated battle against Nietsche and Jesus. And in his musical, England - England, of the notorious East End gangsters, the Kray twins with Bob Hoskins splendidly playing Ronnie.
Snoo, again: “my instinct in play-making is to provide a further viewpoint, to delight and amaze, to reach out beyond death and linear logic in a way which permits a dream resolution. Darwins’ Flood and More Light have the same premise; they are imaginative arabesques danced on the ledge of their heroes’ oblivion.”
I like to think that Snoo, himself, now well beyond mere death, is still delighting and amazing and dancing his imaginative arabesques on some vertiginous ledge of eternity.
Snoo Wilson’s work for the Bush Theatre
1975 The Everest Hotel
1976 The Soul of the White Ant
1978 The Greenish Man
1978 The Language of the Dead is Tongued with Fire
1982 The Number of the Beast
1983 Loving Reno
1987 More Light
1994 Darwin’s Flood