Features Q&A and Interviews Published 4 May 2012

Division of the Kingdoms

Simon Stephens ranks amongst the most successful British playwrights of recent years. Famously 'big in Germany' he can compare an Olivier with topping the Theater heute critics poll for best foreign playwright. And it's precisely because his work is highly regarded and widely and regularly performed around Europe which marks him out as a singularly adventurous voice. Our editor catches up with him ahead of the opening of his new play Three Kingdoms at Lyric Hammersmith, where Stephens is currently an Artistic Associate.
Daniel B. Yates

There is another smoking moment in Harper Regan, in which confirmed non-smoker Harper is sitting on a bench by the canal with the teenage Tobias.

A pause. She pulls out a cigarette and lights it.

H: It’s good for people, travel, you know?

T: Is it?

H: It makes you think about things. It can be a bit unsettling.

T: I’ve never travelled anywhere.

H: It’s not difficult.

“I always think that when you go to an airport like Gatwick, there’s something really comforting about how cool everyone is going to the German departure gates. It’s really reassuring.” A broad smile.

Stephens has reasons to be reassured.  Wastwater won “foreign piece of the year” in Theater Heute’s annual critic poll, where Stephens writes a column decrying Cameron amongst other things (imagine, for a moment, a German playwright doing the same in The Stage). Intriguingly text from that column has made it into Three Kingdoms, which in its short life since premiering in Munich has travelled to festivals in Hamburg, the Festwochen in Vienna and to the author’s festival in Berlin.  That it didn’t get invited to the Theatertreffen has been something of a controversy in the German-speaking world, a similar deal to when Jez Butterworth was overlooked for this year’s Oliviers.

With a gleefully wicked laugh he describes us Brits as “the weird fuckers on the edge of Europe.”  As a boy he would take family trips down through France in the car, Gallic scenery spooling past a child’s wide eyes. Fast-forward to the time of the Icelandic ash-cloud he found himself “the luckiest man in Europe”, hitching a ride in a brand new Audi from Dusseldorf to Calais.  Waiting for the ferry, he had something of an epiphany. “I realised with a clarity that really unsettled me, the extent to which we are an island, and we’re perceived as an island by the folk of Europe, and we behave like islanders, we drink like islanders, and we fight like islanders.  And like islanders we assume that the rest of the world is watching everything that we’re doing, when they’re really not.”

And yet, that he should find the sight of cool Germanophiles traipsing off this soil reassuring, is suggestive of disquiet. Despite previous successes of Crimp, Kane and Ravenhill in Germany, the lines of continental translation are still fragile ones. Indeed there is often downright hostility to European elements of theatre, in an artform that is unusual in the extent that it will identify along nation-state lines. Stephens talks of Britain with a mixture of curiosity and deep affection, which finds voice in barbs and dismissals, heavy irony, and the palpable sense that there are things here that need protecting. For all that Stephens’ work implicates Britain in the dehumanising excesses of post-modernity and late-capitalism, there is this constant, poetically reductive search for what is good.  Harper Regan, for example, closes with a paean to what we might call decency, a comforting vision of retirement in the home counties that is kind of Kiplingesque in its ability to momentarily bracket the myriad histories and politics that would threaten to condemn such a scene, and present a moment of authentic virtue.  “There’s elements of England and Britishness that I really cherish.  And normally the things that I’m nervous and suspicious of are also the things that I really cherish.” And while he accepts that his journey into Mitteleuropa and beyond is at this point beginning to define him, he is firm when pointing out that this attachment “is really quite pragmatic and also self-serving.”  Let down by the America he idolised as a child, the New York “that gave us Martin Scorsese and Patti Smith” which revealed itself to the adult Stephens as “a very expensive shopping city”, he muses that “maybe, as William Morris reminds us, things don’t feel right to us because they’re true, they appear to be true because they feel right. And maybe because I was enjoying success I’d convinced myself that I was pan-European because fuck America.”

Harper Regan at Théâtre du Rond-Point, Paris, 2011.

On the other hand, his recent play The Trial of Ubu which premiered with Toneel Group Amsterdam and came to Hampstead Theatre last year in the form of a Katie Mitchell production, contained a definite admiration for some version of the European ideal channelled through a consideration of the International Criminal Court.

“I think a lot of that thinking came out of that moment of pragmatism, actually.  But yes, also a real consideration of what Europe is – the idea that you can have a country that consciously separates legislature from state, and state from church.” He pauses to consider, and begins to speak more carefully. “Ours is a deeply flawed continent, and the Hague is a deeply flawed city, and the notion of an international criminal court is massively flawed, but it feels to have a dignity to it, even though the flaws seem to sit in the place as the dignity.  I was having a conversation with Anders Lustgarden, and he has a real distrust of the ICC and backed up by figures and facts argues that it appears to be an institution that African leaders in the wake of colonialism are just punished for the behaviour that their history has led them to.  And 24 of the 26 people on trial at the Hague are Africans, and there’s a problem.  But I think that given these flaws, there’s a dignity to the possibility that you can draw a line, and suggest that there are certain things which you can’t do, regardless of who you are, regardless of your history, regardless of your geography, regardless of your cultural moment.  And that sort of attempt to articulate morality sits on a lot of my plays, actually.”

The Trial of Ubu at Hampstead Theatre, 2011.

The Trial of Ubu was hard and oblique, it was high on concept and low on naturalism. It felt European. I wondered if this signalled a deliberate shift in territory. He considers this for a moment. “I’m very kind of aware of the career trajectory of most post-war British playwrights, not all of them but most of them, which involves having a heat and an energy in your twenties and thirties, that fades into self-repetition and disappointing self-parody in your forties and fifties, and then normally retirement and complete marginalisation in your sixties and seventies”  Consequently Stephens is looking toward collaboration, notably with Katie Mitchell for whom he’ll be writing more plays, and German auteur Sebastian Nübling.  “I wrote Trial of Ubu for him, just as I wrote Pornography for him, and Three Kingdoms for him – he’s a really significant collaborator.  He makes me think in ways I’ve not thought before, and makes me write in ways I’ve not written before, and makes me work in ways I’ve not worked before.”

“He’s got a different relationship to text than that of most British directors.  And there were a couple of moments in rehearsal where that was crystallised.  It was the first time he’d worked with British actors, and working with really fucking good British actors, who are experienced and have been round the block. Nick Tennant who plays the lead role of Ignatius Stone is astonishing in this play.  One of the first things he said to them is his habit is to cross out all the stage directions without reading them.  And their faces kind of fell at this point.  And he encouraged them to improvise around the text and still include some improvised text in the performance.  If you come and see Three Kingdoms and you buy the play text there are profound differences between what you read on the page and see on stage.  And I would think for Nübling, the text is the starting point of an attempt to make a piece of theatre.  It should be returned to and considered, but is most importantly a point of embarkation.”


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Daniel B. Yates

Educated by the state, at LSE and Goldsmiths, Daniel co-founded Exeunt in late 2010. The Guardian has characterised his work as “breaking with critical tradition” while his writing on live culture &c has appeared in TimeOut London, i-D Magazine, Vice Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives and works in London E8, and is pleasant.

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