INTERVIEW: Simon Stephens
By Nicola Owen on October 29, 2012 in Stage
“I approach London with the zeal of the converted,” laughs Simon Stephens as he strides down a street somewhere in our capital city. The affable 41 year old sounds a little windswept at the close of the working day but he’s on characteristically garrulous form. His play, London, is poised to open at Live Theatre on Tuesday 30th October for a twelve night run.
Stephens was born in Stockport but moved to the Big Smoke after studying at the University of York. “Before I even came to London I had a relationship with it. And that relationship was one of profound suspicion. But now I really love it. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. The idea of living in another city or in a town or in the countryside just doesn’t appeal at all. In the countryside there’s no internet, cash point machines, phone signal. Disastrous! London is the most exciting city on the planet.”
Thankfully, his vowels are only slightly tarnished by his long stint in the south because Simon Stephens, as well as being a certified Northerner, is one of our most talented and forthright living playwrights. His unflinching, incisive work has touched on subjects such as a high school massacre, a homicidal war veteran and child sex trafficking. He has also recently adapted the prize winning novel The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time for the stage to great acclaim.
The title of this play is in itself bound to provoke affinity in some and irritation in others. In Stephens’s opinion we all have a unique and instinctive emotional response to the perceived dominance of London over all other cities, “I don’t suspect that people in Newcastle resent people in Bristol or people in Plymouth to quite the same degree. This is a very small country with a very big capital city,” he states.
Whatever your feelings are about London the city Stephens promises that the two monologues – T5 and the more famous Sea Wall – which make up London the play are not directly about it. According to the father of three, “They are both plays about parenting. One’s about a mother and one’s about a father and they are both plays about parents who have experienced death in different ways.”
There’s a hole running through the centre of my stomach. You must all have felt a bit awkward because you can probably see it. Even in this light. Most people choose not to talk about it. Alex, Sea Wall.
A co-pro between Live Theatre, Paines Plough and Salisbury Playhouse the show is directed by George Perrin who helmed the critically acclaimed performance of Sea Wall starring Sherlock’s nemesis, the actor Andrew Scott, at the Bush Theatre back in 2008. Sea Wall has now been made into a film starring Scott. Those are pretty big boots for actor Cary Crankson to fill, I tell him.
“I think it’s really brilliant. What’s great is that Cary is a very different actor from Andrew. He’s younger. He’s much more kind of overtly working class London so very quickly for me watching it you kind of forget Andrew and I think that Cary more than holds his own. He laughs when we laugh and if someone coughs in the theatre he kind of involves all that in the way he tells his story.”
Stephens half jokingly calls T5 his “knife crime play” and concedes how many of his contemporaries have written about the subject with varying degrees of effectiveness. He cites Random by Debbie Tucker Green as being a successful example but acknowledges there is a difficulty in reaching white, middle class, theatre going audiences who have relatively little experience of the issue. The solution, for him, was to write the character in T5 as a nameless female who witnesses a stabbing without being involved in it directly. One of the innovations of this particular production is that the audience will be presented with a pair of headphones when they enter the theatre.
“The first thing to say about it is when you watch T5 you hear the voice of Abby, that’s the actress playing the role, you hear it in the headphones and you watch her as though she’s kind of doing a piece of choreography. And it’s really strange and disorientating and I found it really moving. T5 is a play really about someone’s thoughts and there’s no more direct way of articulating somebody’s thoughts than to have them right inside your head. It’s amazing. When you watch a play with headphones on you could be sitting next to someone but completely isolated from them. It’s amazing as individuals how much time we spend with headphones on nowadays. I’ve got my headphones wrapped around my neck as we speak. But as you take them off you become very aware of the people around you and the reality of the person on stage.”
I wonder if he has seen a performance of London yet. “I saw it in Salisbury,” he says, sounding a little hushed for the first time, “I have to say I think it’s an exquisite production. The calibre of the writing is for other people to assess but the calibre of the production is very, very high. It’s beautifully acted and the thinking behind it and the thinking about what an evening in the theatre is and the relationship between the two plays is just sublime. It’s a heck of an experience.”
Stephens worked as a school teacher in Dagenham for a short period before teaching in prisons at Grendon and Wandsworth. He was also a tutor on the Young Writers programme at the Royal Court for five years. Has he got any tips for writers? “There’s advice for writers and advice for playwrights,” he says. “The most important advice I was given as a writer was by my general studies teacher when I was 17 who was the first person to take it seriously rather than to mock it and he said I needed to read hungrily. When you read you read to steal. I think that’s really good advice and certainly something I would pass on. Read as much as you can as often as you can and read with an eye to stealing from it. And if you want to write specifically for theatre then your work as a dramatist is not a consideration of actually what you want to say or what people feel about each other, your work as a dramatist is concerned with things that people do to one another. Remember, if you’re writing a play your job is to look at the things that people do.”
I must make time to read. I must watch Gavin and Stacey before the Sky Plus gets too full. I must go home right now this second and collect Cassie from school. This afternoon I’m going to do none of these things. T5.
“I really hope you enjoy it,” he says when I tell him that I’m seeing the show when it opens, “I love Live Theatre, it’s a smashing place. I think that especially Sea Wall will sit really happily there. I was last in Newcastle to teach a workshop at Live which I think was a couple of years ago. The older I get the harder it is for me to keep a very concrete grasp on time.”
That’s quite unsurprising when you look at what he’s got on in the near future. “I’m writing all the time,” he admits, “I’ve got a pretty solid two years of work lined up ahead of me. I’m writing for the National Theatre and the Royal Court and there’s some television and film stuff. There’s going to be a revival of my play Port at the National Theatre in January and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time is going to transfer to the West End. I’ve got a new play at the Royal Exchange, Manchester for next autumn and I’m writing a play which is going to open in New York in 2014. As well as that I’ll be doing playwriting workshops in Chicago, Barcelona, Denmark, Warsaw and Totleigh Barton in Devon.”
It all sounds brilliant but I speculate on what might have happened if life had taken a slightly different turn and he wasn’t a world famous, jetsetting, celebrated playwright?
“I’d probably be a teacher,” he muses, “It’s a job that runs in the family. My Mum was a teacher, my Granddad was a teacher, my nephew is training to be a teacher, my cousin is a teacher. In my fantasy life there is no question that I would be the missing cornerstone in the heart of the Manchester United defence, which is much needed at the moment, but unfortunately I’m very, very bad at football. Either that or I’d quite like to be one of the leading figures in the alternative rock scene.”
I’m pretty sure that Simon Stephens would be rock n’ roll any which way he wants to play it.
- PREVIEW: The People’s Play @ The People’s Theatre