“My heroes, when I was a teenager, weren’t theatrical – they were people like Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and Shane Macgowan.” Not the typical answer you’d expect from an award-winning playwright, but then Simon Stephens’ path into theatre was far from typical.
Growing up in 1980s Stockport, he dreamed of being a singer-songwriter. “I remember loving the kind of brittle lyricism of Mark E Smith of The Fall or Morrissey’s teenage angst poetry. The fact that the loneliness and strangeness I felt, other people had felt too, I found was tremendously consoling.”
When you meet him in person, the York alumnus has the charisma that you’d associate with the front man of a band – but sadly, it was not to be. “It was only when I really got to university and started doing gigs there that I realised I had a terrible singing voice,” he explains.
Still nurturing dreams of making a career from writing, he opted – perhaps counter-intuitively – to study History rather than English. “It’s kind of a pompous answer, but I remember thinking consciously as a sixth former that I wanted my relationship to literature to be that of a lover or a fan, not a student.
“In retrospect, I’ve also thought that there is a relationship between the work of a historian and the work of a dramatist. A dramatist concerns themselves with what people do and historians concern themselves with what people did. Fundamentally, they’re both a consideration of human behaviour, but looking at the same subject from different perspectives.”
Enter the Drama Barn
Beyond his studies, it was his experience of one particular place on the University of York’s campus that was “fundamental” to him becoming a professional playwright: the Drama Barn.
“I’d never really been to see serious theatre,” he says, “but all the most attractive girls at York wanted to be actresses and they came from really exotic places like, you know, Surrey. In a pathetic, and ultimately entirely misguided, attempt to meet and impress these girls, I went to see them at the Drama Barn in their student productions.”
“The Drama Barn is a rough space, and I loved the roughness and the mess, so I made shows there that deliberately exposed the roughness. We didn’t build a set that covered up the back wall; we exposed it. And the Barn’s still integral. Doing The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre recently, there was a part of me that said, ‘Show the back wall like we did in the Drama Barn.’”
While things didn’t pan out on this score, his links with the Barn were to prove strong. “It felt as though there was the potential in that room to create the kind of stories that Dennis Potter or Martin Scorsese were creating, but to have a vitality the like of which I was getting from watching live bands in Manchester.”
This wish to expose the artifice behind theatre and celebrate the pretence of it lies at the heart of the play for which he is probably best known: the hugely successful adaptation of the best-selling novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. In it, the characters address the audience on several occasions and consciously refer to the fact that they are taking part in a play.
The adaptation came about after Stephens met the book’s author, Mark Haddon, while they were both on attachment at the National Theatre, and they became good friends. The resulting production became a theatrical sensation at the National Theatre, before transferring to the West End, then Broadway – winning seven Olivier awards and five Tony awards along the way.
When asked about his reasons for doing Curious Incident in the first place, he mentions the intellectual challenge of doing his first adaptation, but there was also a more simple reason: “I wanted to do something that my kids could go and see because they can’t go and see Motortown – can you imagine?” he says, laughing.
“My sons, Oscar and Stanley, went to see Herons when it was revived at the Lyric Hammersmith at the start of the year and they went together with my nephew. Afterwards, they all looked at me genuinely speechless! It was very funny.”
His spiritual home
Both Herons, a tender, but violent look at teenage disaffection, and Motortown, his uncompromising tale of an Iraq war veteran returning home to Dagenham, were first performed at the Royal Court.
For Stephens, it’s clearly a special place: “It’s the most important theatre for new plays, in the last 100 years anyway, anywhere in the world.” It was also the theatre that gave him his professional break with his first play Bluebird.
However, when he came to write his second play for the theatre, things didn’t go as smoothly. Juggling teaching English, Drama and Media Studies at a Dagenham school and being a young parent, he spent a year writing it – and then it was rejected.
“It was a really, really important moment actually. In life, we learn nothing from our successes. The biggest danger of our culture in the past 15 years is it renders people nervous of failure. But failure is the only way you can learn anything.”
So, undaunted by the play’s failure, he kept the faith and, a week after the rejection letter, the artistic director phoned him to ask if he would like to be the theatre’s resident dramatist the following year.
And so, on the first day of the new millennium, he was able to leave school-teaching and officially become a professional playwright.
Returning to Herons and Motortown – many of whose characters lead lives ruled by poverty, uncertainty, and fear – I ask him if he thinks their voices are the kind that are, finally, being heard through the EU referendum.
Wisely, he’s circumspect: “It’s really too soon to say. I think there was an awful lot in the gesture of the referendum that felt, to me, as someone who is in no way an expert, like it was a lash of rage and dispossession.”
“If I were a 45-year-old father of three living in Newcastle,” he says, “and my country had marginalised me to that degree and milked money from me, I would lash out with some kind of political roar.” In the week of the referendum, Stephens was leading a playwriting workshop in Newcastle (“a great city”).
He remembers being startled by the level of homelessness and drunkenness that he saw there at 11 o’clock in the morning, and appalled by the stark contrast he experienced when returning home to London and its conspicuous prosperity.
On the whole, Stephens’ plays avoid overtly political statements like these, and yet characters in several of them allude to environmental catastrophe. Is this something that concerns him personally?
“It’s the nature of being a parent that you imagine the future. ‘What happens next?’ is also a really useful question for a storyteller.”
Chekhov is one of his Stephens’ heroes, and he particularly admires the Russian writer’s ability to contextualise human behaviour within the broad scope of history and what the next 100 years may involve.
For his own part, Stephens admits that he finds it hard to imagine that his children’s future lives are going to be wealthier or safer than his own – though he still wonders why this is the case. “We live in the safest time that the humans have ever lived in and probably the happiest. And yet, we operate with a sense of uncertainty.
“It’s not that something terrible is happening; it’s that we’re living with a sense that something awful is about to happen. And I think my plays are about that. If that doesn’t sound like a great night out, I don’t know what does!”
Conscious that we’ve strayed into rather dark territory, I bring things to a close by asking him whether, as a keen Twitter user and a big Manchester United fan, it is still slightly surreal to be exchanging tweets with Gary Lineker about West End theatre.
“He’s my friend now, so it’s both completely surreal and completely not,” he says. “In objective terms, he’s a man of my age, he’s a father, he’s got kids of a similar age to mine – we’ve got a lot in common. So just on a human level, we get on really well – but then every so often, I’ll go, ‘You’re Gary Lineker – you’re actually Gary Lineker!’ But, as a human, he carries none of that about him.”
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is on at the Gielgud Theatre until June 2017. Interview by graduate contributor Ben Stevens.