Simon Stephens is being as enthusiastically polite to the waiter as he is to me. It’s the kind of politeness born less from reserve, than from an awareness that a gregarious cosmopolitanism coupled with a rockstar grace can be as intimidating as it is seductive. “You English are really polite” the German auteur director Sebastian Nübling said to Stephens as they rehearsed ahead of the current production of their latest collaboration Three Kingdoms at the Lyric Hammersmith. “Polite and arrogant”. As we sit drinking coffee outside a trendy Hoxton café in the keen sunlight, it’s as though Stephens has stretched his easy conversational élan around avoiding the latter. I offer him a cigarette and he declines politely. “I do and then I don’t and then I do and I’m not going to today” he laughs with an infectious gurgle.
“There’s this line in Harper Regan about the secret cigarettes he smokes when he’s away in foreign cities, and I’m kind of like that with my smoking. I watched Wastwater in Cologne the other day, smoked twenty, and then came back and didn’t smoke any.” I suggest that Wastwater might have that effect, a play so unsettling it doesn’t so much hit the gut as sit there like a duodenal ulcer. “It’s certainly the bleakest thing I’ve written” he says brightly. “There was a reading done recently at some university, and the director of the reading was trying to convince me that there was an optimism at the end of it. And I just don’t know. I think I’m quite an optimistic person you see, and I remain quite an optimistic person. I think optimism is really important. I like Peter Ustinov’s idea that optimist is mature, and that the only mature response to the world is to be optimistic. And the pessimist wakes up every morning and is astonished to find that world is horrible. ‘Oh my God, this is terrible.’ But the optimist wakes up and engages with possibilities.”
In 2005 Dan Rebellato wrote about the specific tenor to the British naturalism that characterised much of Stephen’s earlier output. “What is striking about his work” Rebellato writes, “is the emphasis – so unfashionable some critics appear not to even have realised what they were seeing – on affirmation, optimism and care.” I wonder how much this optimism, perhaps more fashionable than it was, came from his being slightly generationally askance from a darker moment for British theatre in the 90s, where explicit abuse verged on nihilism.
“I had the experience of becoming a father, I had my family. That is a kind of ballast that sits under everything else. And really means that I need to take very seriously questions of nihilism, because you can’t be a nihilist be a parent. You can’t, you just can’t. The process of getting up in the morning and making breakfast and packed lunches is innately optimistic. You send a kid off to school with the possibility they’re going to know a little more than they did before they went to school, that’s an optimistic gesture. Just as I think the process of making theatre is innately optimistic, regardless of what we say in our plays, regardless of what we write about, regardless of our subject matter, our world, our imagery, our dramatic action, our structure, our anything. Just the very process of making theatre has an optimism. You wouldn’t do it otherwise, so even the Philip Ridleys of this world who I think is a fascinating and important writer. Even he has a profound optimism to his work.”
Flicking his hair agreeably, he smiles. “Most of my analogies come from music or football”, confessing to be as happy when Britney’s Toxic passes through his iPod as Animal Collective. In the same way “there’s no reason why I shouldn’t write a play like Wastwater, and a play like Marine Parade which is an unapologetically sentimental love story.” The latter was a collaboration with the singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel, and continued Stephens’ long association with pop music. His former band The Country Teasers lurk somewhere between Joy Division and Jandek. He’s delighted when I tell him I saw an offshoot The Rebel a few years back, an astonishing vision of a man in a Stetson behind a deconstructed Swastika, singing these sort of Ballardian road songs. “Ben Wallers is a genius” he declares firmly. Moving up to Edinburgh after university Stephens wrote plays and at night played in the artrock scene. “In my memory, which is probably inaccurate, we had our first band rehearsal on the same day I had my first date with my then girlfriend now wife.” I ask him which affair turned out better. “Well the marriage. I did get sacked. I’m over it now, because I never went to rehearsals. I sometimes never went to gigs. And wasn’t all that good at the bass.” Despite this his passion for music is evident and articulate, moving freely from Mark E Smith (“four decades of speed and aclohol has a clear toll”) the death of independent music (“Nirvana were the limit case”), and the current digital long-tail, which, perhaps characteristically, he sees another flowering of independent spirit.
If musicianship was an avenue curtailed, then television is another medium that appears, so far at least, to not quite have lifted off. “The same thing always happens now. I will make a decision that I’m never writing for television again because it’s so fucking dispiriting, and then some smart, intelligent, compelling, charismatic, searching, interesting producer, who’s gone to see a lot of the plays, will contact me through my agent and really flatter me.” He’ll typically then go on to meet “the heads of various institutions, whether it’s the BBC or Channel 4, and they’ll be incredibly flattering but you get the sense that their flattery is a little bit less substantial. That they maybe saw On the Shore of the Wide World and haven’t seen anything since. Or enjoyed Lesley (Sharp) in Harper Regan but didn’t see Trial of Ubu, y’know. And the flattery feels a little bit more ill-founded, and they maybe commission a first episode, I write it as well I can.. and some of the comments I’ve had about my first episodes are fucking ridiculous [as in ridiculously positive] and then they don’t make them.” Stephens intentions here are clear. “All I really want to do is write The Wire, but in England.”
“I know everyone goes on about The Wire, but they go about it because it’s really fucking good.” He namechecks Deadwood, the HBO series which used the desire for an authentic Western as the excuse to introduce some extraordinarily dense language, and Mad Men which “kind of hooks you, it becomes a bit addictive.” I suggest the show is a bit like wallpaper – ambient television. “It looks that way but it isn’t. Mad Men is just kind of an investigation of A Doll’s House. If you think of Betty Draper as being just like Nora. So if David Simon (The Wire’s creator) was sitting under the towers of Euripides which is what he always talks about – he always talks about Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus which was very consciously what he was doing. He really consciously applied the techniques of classical Greek drama to contemporary Baltimore. I think the Mad Men writers were doing the same thing with Ibsen. It looks like wallpaper but the lengths of psychological despair they plunder are astounding. And no one’s doing this in Britain. And the real truth that in British television no one wants to do it, no one’s really interested in it. The last thing that Ben Stephenson (head of drama commissioning at the BBC) would want, would be to produce Mad Men or Deadwood or The Wire. I think he thinks it’s elitist. And I think he thinks it’s not his remit to make that work.”