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Obituary: Sandy Neilson

Sandy Neilson. Photo: Alan McCredie

Sandy Neilson was one of the most influential figures in Scottish theatre over the past half-century.

As an actor, director and teacher, he worked with the country’s leading companies, proved a passionate supporter of new writing and helped forge a distinctive indigenous voice and attitude.

Distantly related to the director Tyrone Guthrie, Neilson was born in Grantown-on-Spey and educated at Gordonstoun School. After a spell working in London’s burgeoning alternative theatre scene in the late 1960s, he returned home to train at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland).

Soon after graduating, he formed the New Theatre Company with writer John Melville and in the early 1970s served as director of Edinburgh’s theatre in education activities. The same decade saw the launch of Viewforth Productions with the playwright Donald Campbell, whose The Jesuits (1976), Somerville the Soldier (1978) and The Widows of Clyth (1979) Neilson directed.

In 1981, he collaborated again with Campbell on a Scottish vernacular version of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts for the newly formed Scottish Theatre Company at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal.

After a stint as drama officer with the Scottish Arts Council, Neilson began the 1980s as artistic director of the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, and ended the decade by co-founding the influential Fifth Estate Theatre Company with writer Allan Sharpe. The partnership won several awards for its 26 productions before folding in 1996.

As an actor, he formed close relationships with the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, where he was in James Bridie’s The Anatomist (1976), Glasgow’s Tron Theatre and Dundee Rep, where notable roles included George (Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1992), Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (1993) and Oberon (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1999).

Later stage appearances included Peter Arnott’s Cyprus (Trafalgar Studios, 2005), his son Anthony Neilson’s Realism with the National Theatre of Scotland at the 2006 Edinburgh International Festival and four years with the Royal Shakespeare Company from 2007.

On television, he was seen in Winners and Losers (1989), Down Among the Big Boys (1993), Rab C Nesbitt (1994), episodes of Taggart and Still Game (2005).

Alexander ‘Sandy’ Neilson was born on January 29, 1943, and died on October 19, aged 74. He is survived by three children – a daughter from his first marriage to the actor Katherine Stark and two sons (one of whom is the playwright and director Anthony Neilson) by his second wife, the actor Beth Robens – and his partner Jacqui Nagib, manager of Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre.

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