sat 20/07/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Playwright Simon Stephens | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Playwright Simon Stephens

theartsdesk Q&A: Playwright Simon Stephens

The most prolific voice in British theatre has adapted Ibsen and Mark Haddon. What makes him tick?

Simon Stephens: 'I love the gang mentality of making theatre'Portraits © Imelda Michalczyk

Simon Stephens (b 1971) is the most prolific British playwright of his generation. Born and brought up in Stockport, he began writing as a student in York University and had produced seven plays before his Bluebird was produced at the Royal Court in 1998.

In due course along came angry, searching, passionate statements about society and belonging with punchy titles like Motortown (2006), Pornography (2007) and Punk Rock (2009) (pictured below right).

The productivity has not let up, least of all in a summer which sees three new plays from his pen: Morning at the Traverse in Edinburgh, a fresh version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for the Young Vic and, for the National Theatre, an adaptation of Mark Haddon’s much-loved bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, about an autistic teenager trying to make sense of a world in which his parents’ marriage has ended. It will be directed by Marianne Elliott, who has previously staged his plays Port (2002) and Harper Regan (2007).

Collaborations with a living novelist and a dead playwright are the latest feints by a writer who seems committed to reinvention. He wrote Three Kingdoms (2011) for a company of actors from three different countries. He wrote A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky (2010) with David Eldridge and Robert Holman. For the Brighton Festival in 2010 he collaborated on a musical with the singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel called Marine Parade. There’s a lot of Simon Stephens to go round. Unlike some writers, he is also an intoxicating talker. He talks to theartsdesk.

JASPER REES: When did you first get hooked up with this idea?

SIMON STEPHENS: I read the book in 2005 as research for Motortown. I knew I wanted to write a character who was somewhere on the Aspergers/autism spectrum. And then in 2007 Mark was on attachment in the National Studio when I was resident dramatist at the National Theatre. We would go and talk about music and grumble and just became mates. He came to see a few plays and I read his stuff and we chatted about the difference between prose writing and dramatic writing. It was a very fruitful friendship. It would be the end of 2008, I think, I got an email from him saying, “Would you consider adapting A Curious Incident for the stage?” Tremendously flattering that he could trust me with a book that had clearly become something of a phenomenon. I was tremendously nervous about it because it had a huge amount of baggage.

What was the attraction of doing your first adaptation?

As I get older, the big spectre that sits in my career anxiety is the extent to which playwrights tend to dry up the older they get. You start your career with a burst of energy and a desire to write and write and write in order to make sense of those things that you’ve experienced through your life and as you get older there’s less to write about because you’ve written all those plays born out of your youth. So in the same way as writing versions of plays is stimulating, I find the dramaturgical challenge of writing an adaptation really exciting, so I told him I’d have a go at it as long as it wasn’t burdened by a commission. I just wanted to be able to do it as an exercise in dramaturgy or an exercise in writing just to see if I could have a go at it and I had a go at it and I fell in love with it. And I found ways into it I think because I wasn’t trying to, and I was unpressured by the burden of a commitment to anybody other than Mark and I’d committed to it on the understanding that I could ring him up at any moment and say, “Mate, I can’t do it.” And he was very supportive about that. I felt quite kind of free.

Why is the book so well loved?

I’m genuinely thinking about this for the first time. There’s obvious things that you can talk about. Obviously it’s funny, obviously it’s warm, obviously it’s moving. Obviously it’s built around a central character who sees the world with a profound innocence and clarity that we hanker after. It was published in the early years of the last decade. I just wonder if there’s something in the idea that if there’s any time when we were searching for the comfort of childhood, it was in the early years of the last decade when the adult world seemed to be going completely to shit.


Except it’s not a very comforting world he exists in (pictured above, Luke Treadaway as Christopher).

No. The book and its reception sits on a very interesting faultline in that sense. I think it’s fair to say that Mark finds the book a lot less comforting than other people seem to find it. I tell people I’m doing it and the faces of people light up with a childlike bliss at the memory of a book they fell in love with, and I think for him the book is flintier and more complicated than I think it’s often remembered as being. One of the most beautiful sections of the book is a section where Christopher is talking about travelling on a train and he talks about the astonishing clarity of the way he sees the world compared to the simplistic way that most other people see the world and the details that most other people miss. I think all of us hanker for that kind of clarity and it’s what reading - what all art - does to us, isn’t it? And there is nothing like the euphoria of leaving a cinema and seeing a film which is genuinely astonishing and you walk out into the city or wherever you are and for a brief time you see the world as the director of the film saw it. Or reading a novel everything seems charged with the same perspective as the writer. I think theatre at its best can have the same thing. It’s transformative in that sense. And I think there was a hunger to be transformed through the mind of Christopher John Francis Boone, because of his capacity for optimism may, because of his innocence.

I also think there was something about maths in there. And really I’ve not thought about this before, which is quite exciting. It’s only in the past 10 years – this might be historically revisionist and I might be projecting my own experiences onto other people – but it strikes me that maths and science in the past 10 years have had a bit of a recovery and the romance of maths and science has been recovered. You look at Professor Brian Cox, you look at Professor Marcus Du Sautoy and the way that they talk about maths and science. They talk with such an infectious romantic energy, and I just wonder if the book tapped into the start of that. Certainly when I was growing up there was a clearer schism between science and the arts. And if you were engaged in the arts you tended to be slightly sneery at the geeky, unromantic, disengaged nature of science and maths. I just wonder if in the past 10 years there has been a fascination with the poetry of science and maths that that book rode on the crest of. Maybe that’s bollocks.

What are you doing about the swearing?

Cunt has gone. The actor [Luke Treadaway] has a reservation about that and I think it’s right that it goes. But I also think it’s right that not quite the first line in the play is “What in the name of fuck have you done to my dog?” And actually we’re aiming it at 11-year-olds in this country and I think every 11-year-old in this country has used the world fuck, normally behind their parents’ back, normally with a sense of daring and a sense of naughtiness. And actually I really cherish the theatrical gesture of allowing the theatre to be a place where you can be a bit naughty and a bit transgressive.

Are you aware of this adaption being connected to any number of your previous plays? Does it feel like it belongs?

I think there are thematic concerns that I share. I’ve written several plays about teenagers and I continue to write plays about teenagers. There is an obsessive interest in my plays that I’m just in the past few years becoming aware of and so able to control, which is a consideration of the question of what is home and how does one leave home and how can one ever possibly return home? That sits in a lot of my plays. The early professional plays - Herons, Christmas, Bluebird, Port – are absolutely charged with the character’s desire to flee and to leave home. And from On the Shore, Motortown onwards, right up to Three Kingdoms (pictured above by Ena-Liis Semper), there is an interest in trying to return home.

There are a couple of other things. What’s fascinating is rehearsing A Doll’s House and Curious Incident at the same time; there’s two little things that have come in the process. One is an obsessive interrogation of honesty and dishonesty. Christopher because of his medical condition or just because of his character if we avoid the Asperger's flag has an inability to lie. Nora is traumatised by the lies that she’s told and her attempt to recover her life having lied. There is a line in A Doll’s House which only just sprung to me when I watched the dress, when she’s explaining why she has to leave now. She says, “I can’t spend the night in a stranger’s house,” which is a line that Christopher uses. That returns to this interrogation of home. What is home? Where can we live? Three Kingdoms, Trial of Ubu (pictured overleaf by Stephen Cummiskey), Morning absolutely build on this interrogation of what is it to be honest.


Why is this an obsession of yours?

I don’t know! I’m a little bit nervous of trying to interrogate that one. I think it’s tremendously useful for writers to have control of the myths that fascinate them because then they can return to them from different perspectives, but I think that if I knew I was writing for example about a need to leave home at the time of writing Herons and Port and Christmas, I might not have written those plays. I might need to wait a few years and look back on that time and go, “Clearly I was lying my arse off.” Maybe it’s to do with parenting. Maybe it’s to do with the things that we keep from our children. Maybe it’s to do with something broader in our political culture. Maybe it’s just something writers have. Christopher would absolutely say that plays are lies. Ibsen was touching on this. There is a moment in A Doll’s House when Nora says, “None of this is real. This isn’t a real house.” (Pictured below, Hattie Morahan in A Doll's House.) You look at the late plays of Shakespeare where he is completely overt about the dishonesty of making a play. Maybe what the dramatist does is a search of the possibility of a profound truth through consciously lying.

David Hare once said to me in an interview that playwriting is a young man’s game and the older you get the more lonely it gets. Is there an anxiety that you might run out of things to say? Are you, as it were, writing plays about wanting to go home becaues you’re written all your plays about wanting to leave home? Or are you writing about teenagers the second time around because you are a parent of them?

Absolutely there is that anxiety. It’s not necessarily a new anxiety. It’s an anxiety I’ve always had. Bluebird was my first professionally produced play but it was my eighth play – I wrote seven plays as a student and immediately after graduation that I staged and directed myself in terrible little rooms above bars. Even then, because I so loved writing plays, there was the fear that I would never be able to do it again. And I think every play that I’ve had in production there normally comes a point – it’s not normally press night because press night is normally a whole valley of shit - but normally the last preview before press night or perhaps the first performance I see after press night or perhaps the last night, I’ll sit watching the play and think, well, that’s the best I can do. I will never be better. Every time from Bluebird onwards.

Does that mean each play is better than the last?

No, I’ve kind of reconciled myself to the fact that that isn’t the case now. I think of it in a slightly different way now. Oliver Sacks talked about the relationship between nostalgia and creativity in another book I read around about the time of Motortown, which is called The Anthropologist on Mars and that we returned to for researching Curious Incident in rehearsal because it’s a book about characters on the autistic and Asperger's spectrum. In a case study in that book he was talking about a man suffering from paralysing nostalgia who painted watercolours. He suggested that the impulse to become nostalgic comes from the same part of the psyche as does the impulse to create, and that both creativity and nostalgia are born out of a need to repair things that are broken or to complete things that are interrupted. So we feel nostalgic about the experiences we feel were interrupted and ended too soon and they are also the experiences that might lead us to want to write. And I think all of the plays I’ve written in some sense have kind of been an attempt to complete something or to repair something. And I think as well that all of the plays in that sense have kind of failed, and so you write another play to have another go, or to look at it from a different perspective.


Why do they fail?

Oh, I don’t know. Just the mess of being alive. I think a lot of dramatic writers have the experience of watching a father fall from economic grace and absolutely that happened to my dad, who was a man I absolutely adored and adore, but he died when he was 59. He, like Arthur Miller’s dad and like Eugene O’Neill’s dad and like Shakespeare’s dad and like Joe Penhall’s dad and like a lot of people’s dads, I saw his masculinity collapse. There was a time when he was quite rich and there was a time when he lost quite a lot of money. And that’s something quite profound in me. And I think the process of parenting is always something that’s incomplete, isn’t it? The whole process of being alive is an attempt to complete something that can never be completed.

For someone who regards press nights as a whole valley of shit, you go into that valley an awful lot.

There’s part of me that thinks, it’s my job. My writing is riddled with flaws and inadequacies and there are things which I can’t do and I’ll never be able to do. I went to see Long Day’s Journey into Night and was just staggered by the fucking power of the thing and was very aware that I was in the presence of something I’ve not even come close to touching. There’s some things I know I’m good at but I’m uncomfortable talking about them. The one thing I’ll talk about in terms of my own strengths, I was raised with and I cherish my mum and dad for, is that I work hard. I always have done from when I was a kid. I was a real swot at school and I got bullied mercilessly for it but it’s actually served me bloody well.

The other thing is I love writing and love writing drama. I’ve no real interest in writing poetry or short stories or novels. I love the gang mentality of making theatre so I’d miss that. And I love the liveness of the audience. I just love this industry. My happiest place is in the rehearsal room or in the office imagining possible rehearsal rooms to come. It’s a place that makes me just fucking happy. The notion of not ever being in a rehearsal room again or being in a theatre with a roomful of people watching something that I’ve been part of come to life, to not have that in my life would leave me sick with sadness. What it is is the infectious power of a roomful of people you have immense respect for just saying yes to something. The power of saying, “Yeah, let’s do it, I’ll do that, I’ll say that word, I’ll say that line, I’ll direct that line, we’ll commit to this shared vision and collectively the whole of us can be more than the sum of our individual parts.” You don’t get it in television at all, you don't get it in writing prose at all.

You’re prolific. Is there an anxiety that you may simply write yourself and that your time may somehow pass?

Completely but that happens to playwrights all the time. You look at the trajectory of careers of playwrights in the wake of the Second World War from the moment the English Stage Company settled at the Royal Court, which defines contemporary playwriting still, that absolutely happens. It happened to Osborne, it happened to Wesker, it happened to Bond. It hasn’t happened to the sainted Caryl [Churchill] and I hope it never does, but most of the playwrights have a time when they fall out of fashion. Of course, of course.

I still do a lot of work with young writers and directors. One thing that makes me nervous is that some young writers become preoccupied with career and where their career path is leading them. You can’t legislate for that because you can’t control it. And I can’t legislate for what is going to happen next in my career so there’s no point in being anxious about it. All I can control is what I write next and try to keep my work as alive and as engaging as I possibly can.


Good interview that asks the right questions and therefore gets more out of the loquacious writer than most

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