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

For Three Kingdoms Nübling has brought long-time collaborators to bear.  Eero Epner from NO 99 in Tallinn and Julia Lochte from Munchen.  Lars Wittershagen the composer, and Ene-Liis Semper from NO99 who has designed the show, “and interestingly is one of Estonia’s leading artists, so it’s kind of like working with Sarah Lucas, or Richard Billingham, you know.” Shifting energetically in his seat, and sounding quite distinctly non-autochthonous, he continues.  “Another collaborator, in this room responding to this play, in order to make a piece of theatre, was me!  I was working with them, with a different head on to the head with which I wrote the text, interpreting the text to turn it onto performance.  So I would be cutting text, writing new text, re-attributing dialogue, refining the improvisation, with a very different head on to the one I had writing the play.  Obviously that’s quite surprising for British theatre makers, and surprising for British actors.”

“So much of British direction involves teaching British actors how to read, actually. And a significant amount of the rehearsal process is just about reading the play, and interpreting the play and interrogating the play.” This is a traditional part of the “kind of detailed British naturalism that is very much founded in the text.  And Sebastian is the very opposite of that.  So he’ll never ask characters about their backstory. He never asks about the meaning of a line.  Never ever in all the work we’ve done together, and this is the fifth play we’ve done together – never once has he asked me what does this line mean? Or what is this trying to say?”  At the heart of Three Kingdoms is the relationship between two detectives who are investigating a murder, played by Ferdy Roberts and Nick Tennant who happen to be very good friends.  “He’s never asked these two detectives, he’s never asked them in rehearsal how long have you two worked together?  Do you like each other?  He’s not interested in it.  He’s just interested in making something on the stage.”

Pornography at Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg, 2009. Photo by A.T. Schaefer.

So meaning spontaneously, and haphazardly, emerges?  Stephens nods swiftly.  “His main line in rehearsal would be ‘do something interesting’.  The English word he uses more casually than any other is ‘boring’.  And I really had to talk to him about his use of that word, it’s more insulting than I think he anticipates.  Which is the opposite to Katie Mitchell, and her approach is the one of all British directors which is considered most pan-European to use your adjective, and certainly she’s the one who’s had the most successful career outside of England of contemporary English directors, but her approach is about absolute meticulousness and rigorously imagined interior world, and a rigorously shared interior world for all the actors.  And Sebastian is the polar opposite of that.  Both of them are ferociously hard-working, tirelessly hard-working.  In the last three weeks of rehearsing for Three Kingdoms drove the actors to despair, cause he just rehearsed every fucking day.” Stretching back in his chair. “They had no days off, to quote the Happy Mondays.”

Now that Stephens has a relationship with more than one culture of theatre criticism, I wonder how he sees the differences.  “The joy about Germany is that I can’t read what they write.  So I’ve genuinely no idea what any German critic has ever said about any of my plays,” he replies, slightly disingenuously and with a genuine smile. He’s happy, however, to call Quentin Letts “pernicious”, and “a nasty piece of shit whose only mission in life is self-aggrandisement and the racking up of hits for the tremendously popular Daily Mail website”. Michael Billington is impossible to dislike, “despite my disagreeing with almost everything he says”, as it would be a bit like “hating your mum’s uncle”.  Aside from starring reviews and the tyranny of wordcount, he suggests that the wild gap between fringe and West End, London and the regions, between the subsidised and commercial sector, makes the traditional broadsheet reviewer’s remit almost impossible.

Three Kingdoms.

This sparks another thought.  “You know, it struck me recently the extent to which British theatre still sits under the shadow of Shakespeare, or Shakespearean theatre, is really pronounced, by which I don’t mean that we’re all drawn to writing in rhyming couplets or feel the need to write plays of State in which Kings are killed.  We have to keep one eye on the groundling.  So he could write the most significant and searching and poetic texts that any human has written in the English language, and he was always aware that he had to seduce people away from the bear baiting and the prostitutes and the cock-fighting. And that still defines theatre in England.  If you on any escalator on the London underground, the extent to which the lifeblood of this city is soaked in theatre is palpable.  And the great strength of English theatre is exactly that.”  Here Stephens cites Mamet on the freeing nature of the commercial imperative.  “And you compare that to a theatre culture in Germany, for example one theatre I worked at, the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, where they’re given state subsidy equivalent of sixty euros per seat per night, so they have no commercial imperative, they don’t need to get people in.  So subsequently they don’t need to cast people off the telly. Subsequently they have aesthetic ideologies rather than commercial imperatives.  No actor working exclusively in this country, really with the exception of the people working for the Wrestling School, work with a methodology or an aesthetic.” He points to Danny Mays’ abundant variety of work: a career moving through adverts, to Ashes to Ashes, to a Mike Leigh film, to The Donmar.  “And I think it’s the same with writers.  Sometimes it’s really energising to be part of a market in which you’re competing, and that gives me the energy to write two plays a year, or three plays a year.”

There is no sense in which Stephens has left us, nor any doubt about how deeply ingrained British theatre remains under his nails.  But there is little doubt he’s now looking to shake things up.  Pornography was an exploded remix of the seven ages of man speech from As You Like It, on the heels of Nubling’s celebrated deconstruction of Romeo and Juliet.  As we get up to leave he pleads in a happily ironic mew: “I’ve got five plays opening this year over here, I mean, you know?”  And with that Simon Stephens gets on his bike, a man not short of employment, exporter and importer, free-wheeling his fixie through the same streets on which Shakespeare once took his lodging.

Three Kingdoms is playing at the Lyric Hammersmith until the 19th May 2012. Visit the Lyric website for tickets.


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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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