The playwright Simon Stephens is a rebel at the heart of British theatreby Michael Coveney / January 23, 2013 / Leave a comment
Women are shown as deer in Stephens’s Three Kingdoms (2011), a play about sex trafficking © Ene Liis Semper
The most prolific playwright of our new century, 41-year-old Simon Stephens, sits at the very centre of new British theatre, a ubiquitous activist who believes in “making” theatre, not writing it, relishing what he calls “the gang mentality” involved.
Port, which opens at the end of January at the National Theatre, defines Stephens’s talent and areas of interest almost perfectly. A story of growing up and escape in his native Stockport, Port charts the odyssey of a young girl over 12 years as she strikes out on her own, with a much younger brother. Pushed to the margins in the shadow of a big city, she embodies the spirit of melancholy and alienation Stephens admires in the music of Morrissey and the Smiths.
Last year alone, Stephens had six titles performed in Britain, including the controversial Three Kingdoms at the Lyric, Hammersmith (only someone “debauched beyond redemption” could enjoy the dildo-and-bondage scenes, I wrote, somewhat primly). The play, which begins with the discovery of a headless female corpse in Hammersmith, followed two British detectives through the lower depths of the European vice-trade and sex-trafficking business.
Stephens also served up two acclaimed, award-winning adaptations, both re-surfacing this year: brilliant versions of Mark Haddon’s hit novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, transferring to the West End from the National Theatre in March, and of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, returning to the Young Vic in April.
There is a time-honoured division in British theatre: on one side stand the Roundheads of the Royal Court “new writing” school and the politicised fringe; on the other, the Cavaliers of the Trevor Nunn-style Royal Shakespeare Company, with the National Theatre straddling both camps.
When it comes to the playwrights themselves, the distinction is even clearer. Stephens, as a former inner city teacher, odd job man, shop worker, musician (he played in a Scottish punk band called the Country Teasers) and provocateur turned playwright, is the leading Roundhead in a profession more easily identified by the general public in its Cavaliers: Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett, David Hare and Alan Ayckbourn.
Unlike those plumed playwrights, Stephens has never had a West End hit (well, not until the arrival of The Curious Incident next month, perhaps), nor does his work court, or indeed attract, top box office names. But it lies at the heart of our theatre, partly because Stephens himself gets so involved—he used to teach on the Royal Court’s brilliant Young Writers Programme, was resident dramatist at the National and is now a busy associate at the Lyric, Hammersmith—and partly because he is so effusive and skillful.
Two years ago, Stephens wrote a subtly interconnecting triptych, Wastwater, which studied some odd relationships around the child care industry. It was an intriguing formal experiment that didn’t quite work, but a palpable poetic tension ran through the thought-provoking production. A policewoman unexpectedly quoted Charles Dickens in Great Expectations: “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.”
Sounds like Morrissey again. Stephens also cites Tom Waits and Shane MacGowran of the Pogues as major influences. Several of his plays are set in the urban sprawl around Heathrow Airport, even more of them by rivers, seas or lakes. There is the idea of struggle in a permanent state of transition—the nominal heroine of Harper Regan (2008, at the National) is a soul in torment, poised on the brink of leaving her job, her husband, her daughter. And, as always in Stephens, that spiritual odyssey is also a physical one, hence its poignant theatricality.
Will the plays acquire classic status? I think they might. One of my favourites is Motortown (2006, Royal Court) in which a British serving soldier returns to Dagenham, home of the Ford plant in Britain, and endures an episodic period of non-adjustment to civilian life. It struck me as our modern equivalent of the first great European working-class tragedy, Georg Büchner’s fragmentary Woyzeck—published in 1879, 40 years after its author’s death—in which the disoriented military anti-hero drowns himself in a lake.
The poetic is the political in Stephens, and vice versa, and he’s first and foremost a regional, not a London, writer. His signature play, Punk Rock (2009), a vibrant companion piece in some ways to Port, deals with peer pressure, sexual games-playing and suicide in a fee-paying Lancashire grammar school, and the scenes are punctuated with blasts of noisy rock from the likes of Big Black and the White Stripes. The schoolchildren are both critically emblematic of a private education system and true to the spirit of rebellion they discover in themselves.
Port, like Curious Incident, is directed by Marianne Elliott, who also worked on the original production ten years ago in Manchester. Elliott is one of many colleagues on whose careers Stephens’ work acts as a sort of lightning rod. And not just in Britain; like those figureheads of British theatre in the 1990s, Sarah Kane (Blasted) and Mark Ravenhill (Shopping and Fucking), Stephens goes down well in Germany.
His work—in its sexual and psychological analysis, as well as in its social and cultural obsessions—has a knack of illuminating the terrain around everyone working in progressive contemporary theatre from Birmingham to Glasgow, the National Theatre to the German Schauspielhaus. You’re unlikely, though, to see Dame Judi Dench’s name on the marquee.