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Sandy Neilson obituary

Sandy Neilson – actor, director

Born January 29 1943; died October 19th 2017


If the narrative of Scottish theatre had taken a different turn, Sandy Neilson, who has died aged 74 after being hospitalised following a fall, might have ended up leading one or other of the country's major theatres. As it was, despite working extensively in pretty much every theatrical institution in the country, Neilson remained both inside and outside the mainstream, developing long-term working relationships with many key directors of his generation who were in charge of such buildings.

Neilson featured in numerous productions by Michael Boyd, both during the latter's tenure running the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and when Boyd took over the helm at the Royal Shakespeare Company. These included Boyd's epic staging of Shakespeare's History Cycle at the RSC. Prior to the latter, Neilson worked at Dundee Rep, where for three years he became a senior figure of the permanent ensemble company set up by Hamish Glen. Neilson also worked extensively with Kenny Ireland during his decade-long reign at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.

Beyond this, Neilson retained an artistic independence through ad hoc companies such as the Heretics in the 1970s, with whom he directed Donald Campbell's searing drama, The Jesuit, in 1976. The relationship with Campbell continued, with Neilson directing Somerville the Soldier at the Traverse a year later, before Campbell, Neilson and choreographer turned publicist and agent Pat Lovett formed Viewforth Productions to present another Campbell play, The Widows of Clyth, in 1979.

Most notably, Neilson's creative autonomy found its fire through Fifth Estate. Co-founded in 1990 with actor/writer Allan Sharpe, the company aimed to fill a vacuum of expansive, intelligent and often historical-based home-grown works that seemed to exist in what looked to Neilson and Sharpe to be a stagnant state of Scottish theatre.

Over Fifth Estate's six year existence based at the Netherbow Theatre in what is now the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, despite living a shoe-string existence, the company somehow managed to produce twenty-six shows. This included new works by the likes of George Rosie, Trevor Royle and Robert Forrest, as well as revivals of neglected works by Campbell, including The Jesuit, C.P. Taylor and Sue Glover.

Operating with an intellectual vigour that set them apart from much else going on, Fifth Estate was an act of political self-determination as much as an artistic one. With Neilson and Sharpe either directing or acting in productions, offstage, the company were fiercely critical of the theatrical status quo. While this didn't always endear them to the powers that be, Neilson maintained a forensic dissenting voice forever after.

Sandy Neilson was born in Granton on Spey, Invernesshire, and trained at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Dramatic Art (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) in Glasgow. He graduated in 1966, and over the five decades that followed, became a vital and increasingly wise presence in Scottish theatre, both as actor and director.

Neilson grew into a kind of elder statesman of Scottish theatre without portfolio. In the rehearsal room he was more often than not a trusty lieutenant and a ballast of calm. He also became a mentor to many, a role he continued while teaching and directing students at both Queen Margaret College and Telford College in Edinburgh.

Among an encyclopedia's worth of roles, at the Tron he played Mephistopheles in a version of Faust, and Sigmund Freud in Century's End. He also appeared in Boyd's productions of Macbeth and Peter Arnott's play, Thomas Muir. At Dundee, he played George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and the title role in Uncle Vanya. He was Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and appeared in Forbes Masson's crazed musical, Mince, as well as more than a dozen other shows at the Rep. These include The Duchess of Malfi and The Winter's Tale. While in Dundee, he also directed poet Don Paterson's play, The Land of Cakes

At the Lyceum, he took on the title role in James Bridie's play, The Anatomist, appeared in the Edinburgh International Festival production Tom Murphy's Too Late for Logic, and in a production of Ibsen's Ghosts in Belfast.

On film and TV, Neilson appeared in Heavenly Pursuits and Down Among the Big Boys, both directed by Charlie Gormley; Blood Red Roses directed by John McGrath; and Brond, overseen by Michael Caton-Jones. Neilson also appeared in an episode of Jute City, the 1991 Dundee and Ullapool set mini series scripted by David Kane. In 1986, Neilson had directed Kane's first stage play, Grave Plots, in the Cafe Royal function room as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. More recently, Neilson appeared in David Mackezie's film of Young Adam, in sit-com Still Game, and in a BBC adaptations of The 39 Steps. He also appeared in numerous radio plays.

Neilson had spent some time as a drama officer at the Scottish Arts Council. It was here he first met Boyd, when he rejected him for an SAC trainee directorship “with such grace and kindness that rejection felt like a compliment” according to Boyd, who went on to value Neilson as a councellor and friend.

“He was quick, urbane and thoughtful in his work,” says Boyd, “an indecently gifted actor who slipped with seeming ease into all his new skins, and a true champion of good new writing for the stage.”

For a short time Neilson was artistic director of the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, where he featured works such as Alexander Reid's comedy, The Lass Wi' the Muckle Mou. Scottish culture was important to Neilson, and he was part of Artists for Independence, the campaigning body that existed to champion the same sort of self-determination that Fifth Estate came to embody. For all his convictions, Neilson was never pious. He wore his intelligence lightly and generously, and while he was renowned for being able to knock off the Times crossword in ten minutes flat, he never took himself too seriously. A wry twinkle was never far away from anything he did both at work and play

Neilson married actress Beth Robens, who appeared in The Jesuit and other shows he directed. The pair had two sons, Anthony and Ranald. After the marriage ended, Neilson spent the last eleven years of his life with his partner, Jacqui Nagib. Neilson's elder son, Anthony, grew up to be an accomplished playwright and director, and Neilson acted on screen in his son's 1999 film, The Debt Collector, and in the National Theatre of Scotland's 2006 production of Anthony's Herald Angel winning play, Realism. While at Dundee Rep, Neilson directed another of his son's plays, The Night Before Christmas. Anthony would later direct his father as part of a large ensemble cast in his RSC production of Russian writers Mikhail and Vyacheslac Durnenkov's play, The Drunks. Boyd remembers Neilson talking of his son's work with a “deep glow of joy.”

Neilson was about to go on tour to New York with the RSC when illness got the better of him, and he was forced to stand down. Although he worked little as assorted ill health took hold, his mental faculties remained razor sharp. It was this gimlet-eyed intelligence that defined Neilson's career. His quiet authority left its mark on generations of actors and directors who he inspired in a way that suggested they could succeed on their own terms in the same way he had done.

Sandy Neilson is survived by his partner, Jacqui Nagib, and his sons, Anthony and Ranald.

The Herald, October 25th 2017

ends

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