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.
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