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Simon Stephens interview: “There is something about bringing Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle to London which means a lot to me. A lot of my plays are carved out of a love for this city.”

Multi-award-winning playwright Simon Stephens is a pale giant, dressed today in dark blue jeans, a maroon shirt and a charcoal grey jacket. He listens and laughs a lot.

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Simon Stephens © Alex Rumford

We’re sitting upstairs in a quiet corner of Black’s, a members’ club in London. The setting is intimate and our talk about his new play, Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is too. The blurb for the show reads: ‘When two strangers meet by chance amidst the bustle of a crowded London train station; their lives change forever’. The play receives its UK premiere at Wyndham’s next month and tells the story of two strangers who strike up an unlikely relationship. It stars Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham, and reunites the production team behind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, with Stephens, Marianne Elliott and designer Bunny Christie. “Ken and Ann-Marie have a very complimentary energy that’s absolutely perfect for this play. Ken has such earth and a stillness and Ann-Marie has an edge and desire. The two of them dance around one another and it’s kind of exquisite,” he says.

The play is directed by Marianne Elliott and is the inaugural show for Elliott & Harper Productions, the company she has set up with director Chris Harper. Elliott’s many credits include Curious Incident (adapted for the stage by Stephens), War Horse and Angels in America. “I hope it sells – for them,” says Stephens, “I don’t want them to be exposed to anything. I really love them. If I’m anxious about anything, I’m anxious about the people of that calibre enjoying the success that they deserve.”

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Is he nervous? “I’m really happy. I’m not nervous. Because the play has been done before in New York,” Stephens replies. “When a play is being done for the first time your main fear is that it is shit. I kind of know that it’s not shit. It’s not a shit play. There is something about bringing Heisenberg to London which means a lot to me. A lot of my plays are carved out of a love for this city.”

We talk about his friendship with Marianne and I get a clear sense of how and why they work so well together (Simon is Godfather to her daughter and it was some time into working together that she and Stephens discovered that they were both from Stockport and that they used to get the same bus to their schools.)

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Simon Stephens and Marianne Elliott © Alex Rumford

“She’s brilliant because she’s brilliant – we have a brilliant relationship because of some deep psychic connection,” he says. “Above all of those things, she’s the hardest-working director I know.” Hard-working in a different way, he explains, from Ivo van Hove and Sean Holmes, say, who run theatres or do show after show, back-to-back in Paris or on Broadway. “Marianne refuses to go back-to-back with shows. Stephens continues. “At a time when everyone wants her, she says no to so many jobs because she needs the preparation time. I don’t know any director who prepares more than her. Heisenberg is an hour and fifteen two-hander and she has six weeks preparing it so that when she talks to the cast at the beginning of rehearsals, she speaks with more depth about the play than I have. What she’ll bring is the sense of its existential depth.”

He’s on a roll about his peers. “I’m so fucking fortunate, Carl. I’ve been so fortunate with the collaborators that I’ve worked with. Really lucky,” he says, thinking. “To work with Sean Holmes again and again, a substantial ten-year relationship. A fifteen-year relationship with Sarah Frankcom as well as the rockstar directors like Katie Mitchell, Ivo van Hove and Sebastian Nübling… It’s completely thrilling.”

There’s nothing smug about the way Simon Stephens says that, just a thankful recognition that he has done incredibly well.

I say I think his writing is often desolate but never without heart. In these uncertain times, how important is optimism? “I think Heisenberg is infused with the possibility of optimism and I think that is important. The only response to a world in peril is to be optimistic – I think pessimism is the last resort of the privileged,” he says, tucking into his artichoke soup.

“There is a difference between optimism and naivety – between optimism and jolliness. Real optimism has to consider real peril, real despair, real fear and real isolation. To deny those is just naïve but it’s about acknowledging those and finding the determination to persist.”

Rather brilliantly, there are 30,000 tickets for Heisenberg available for under £20. Delivering work to audiences at an affordable price is important to Stephens. “I’ve been a teacher all my life,” he nods. “There is nothing more important to me than the notion that theatre is not an elitist art form but that it is a democratic art form. You can make it cheaper than a lot of cinemas. You can make it cheaper than a football match. This is like watching a Champion League Football match at the cost of watching a match in the Ryman Conference.”

Heisenberg isn’t the only play keeping him occupied. Stephens’ adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull opens at the Lyric Hammersmith the day after and he has come from rehearsals to meet me. “I’m more nervous, weirdly, about The Seagull,” he admits. “I really like writing versions – it’s thrilling for me. It’s simple, it doesn’t take a massive amount of time and it’s different from play to play to play. 10 years ago, when I was working on Harper Regan and Lesley Sharp asked me to write a version of The Seagull, I knew I wasn’t able to at that time in my career. Because in my opinion, Chekhov is the best writer in the history of the world. For me, he is my tower. Do you know the Leonard Cohen song ‘Tower of Song’?” he asks.

I tell him I don’t.

“It’s a really beautiful, beautiful song. In it Cohen sings about the Tower of Song – a tower that all songwriters live in and there’s a beautiful line about Hank Williams.” Stephens quotes: “‘I said to Hank Williams: “How lonely does it get?” Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet. But I hear him laughing all night long. Oh, a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song’.”

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He continues, “I think writers position themselves at the foot of towers and they are very specific about which towers they position themselves at the foot of. I’m sitting on ground floor of Chekhov’s Tower and he’s a hundred floors above me, laughing all night long,”

It would be easy to pin him down as a tortured artist. How does he manage ego? “I find it really confusing because there’s part of me that still thinks I’m desperately trying to hack away, trying to get it right. As I look at my career now, objectively – if I separate myself from the experience of my career – I think you’d look at it and say that it is probably the career of a successful playwright. But I don’t experience myself as being a successful playwright,” he admits, modestly.

“I think the only thing you can do is, you stay present tense and concern yourself with the work and just get the work right. This is not just for successful playwrights, I think it’s true of all playwrights,” he continues. “I think it’s actually more perilous for writers at the start of their career because they are so worried about career that they can stop worrying about the work. I can’t change anything… It took me about 10 years to get over the notion of linear improvement. All I really want to do is write a play that is different to the last one. If ever it comes close to me taking myself too seriously then my children and my wife will just take the piss out of me – so brilliantly and precisely that it’s just impossible.”

I shift the conversation to critics, specifically, Michael Billington, who we both agree gets a lot of stick from the blogosphere. “If you’re working in theatre and you can’t distinguish between Michael Billington and Quentin Letts say- or Michael Billington and Dominic Cavendish, then you’re a fucking idiot,” he says, smiling. “If you can’t acknowledge that Michael Billington is one of the most consistently thoughtful, economic, searching, knowledgeable and serious writers about theatre.”

Stephens is Artistic Associate at the Lyric Theatre and Associate Playwright at the Royal Court. Does he think there are issues with the way new work is being commissioned that need addressing in order for the next generation of playwrights to break through? “I think there are perhaps some structural issues. But the structural issues are really complicated,” he says.

“I’m old enough to remember the year 2000 and the early years of the Blair government – and the remarkable energy for the arts that that government had and the extraordinary investment that that government brought about,” he explains. “I forget the name of the report in 2000 celebrating the agency of new writing and instigating a cash injection into new writing. But within five or ten years there were more playwrights than there had ever been and they were funded and supported. There new writing groups and young writing schemes all over the country. Eight years later there was an economic collapse that we’re still reeling from and the consequences of that is a massive withdrawal of money from the arts.”

“So, we have this situation where there are four times as many playwrights and less money to inject into the productions of their plays. That’s really tricky for the well-intentioned artistic directors who have to let people down. They will, and have rejected major significant playwrights and that’s an ongoing thing. I don’t know what to do about it because we are unfortunately not governed by a government that believes in the arts. The nature of Conservatism is that it has an impulse to conserve and the one thing the arts are not interested in ever – or should never be interested in –  is conserving,” says Stephens.

Julian Fellowes is the only playwright in the world who has any vested interest in things staying the way that they are and that’s why he is a…”

Just in time his phone beeps. “That’s my timer,” he sighs. “I need to be thinking about making a move.” Another rehearsal to get to?

No, he laughs, and heads off down Dean Street to pick up his daughter from school.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle runs at Wyndham’s Theatre from 9 October to 6 January, with previews from 3 October.

The Seagull will run at the Lyric Hammersmith from 10 October to 4 November, with previews from 3 October.

X, Royal Court, London.

X” is not what it appears.

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X” is set on a small research base on Pluto. Pluto’s distance from the Sun is 3.67 billion miles. Much like the planet itself, “X” relies on what you bring to it. It is both engrossing and alienating.

X” is not what it seems.

Written by Demi-God Alistair McDowall and directed by Vicky Featherstone with customary assurance, this production is incoherent, but looks good and is mostly well acted. Sure “X” is ambitious. Even startling. But too many plot points are left to the audience’s imagination without absolutely any explanation whatsoever.

Superb as the visuals are, I wish that Featherstone’s production paid more attention to McDowall’s language. Not much is made visually apprehensible.

I liked the huge dead bird on stage and the bird that was flown in – wonderful
opportunities for design and stage management. I didn’t enjoy quite so much
all that mum stuff at the end and the last moment when someone said the tree
was her mother(!).

Science fiction never announces its subtext this narcissistically. Still, it’s a smart response to the excesses of the sci-fi genre. Without wishing to baffle you, people are doing this shit because everything is fucked. Theatre needs to be instrumental in un-fucking everything.

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It seemed like a 6/10 event – slightly above average and, for that reason, an average McDowall play.

McDowall’s got talent but at the moment no very coherent way of presenting his ideas. We shall see how he moves forward.

At the Royal Court, London, until 7 May. Buy tickets for X from www.royalcourt.com 

Guest Blog: The Royal Court’s Young Court

Published by www.ayoungertheatre.com on 04.04.2016

Looking great for 60, the Royal Court celebrates its milestone with an array of outward looking projects. Lynne Gagliano, Head of Young Court, sure knows how to throw a party. Heading up the Royal Court’s inclusive programme of activities for young people up to 21 years, Lynne cheers the Young Court projects which aim to make new theatre, offering active, direct experiences alongside the on-stage work.

“It’s all about unique learning exchanges across all departments, placing young people at our centre, fostering a live dialogue in which their views and ideas are valued and encouraging young people to discover their power to influence and change theatre.”

No party planner is without their badge of experience, and youth isn’t wasted on the young. She talks about her career and how she herself became involved with theatre at an early age. “I volunteered. My first volunteer job was at a venue I loved, the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill. It was a fantastic experience. I learned a huge amount in my time there and met people that I’m still working with today.”

Lynne trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama and, before that, taught Drama and English. How transferable are those skills in her current role? She explains, “The ability to collaborate successfully has helped me enormously in every theatre job I’ve had since leaving Central. Having worked as an English and Drama teacher has also helped me in countless ways in running an education department.”

With collaboration in mind, it’s clear the Court is really going all out to make this celebration as inclusive and open an opportunity as possible. “Being representative, and diversifying talent are core aims. We are driven by the aspiration for the Royal Court to be a proven place of opportunity for all with diverse and brilliant plays on stage and inclusive participation.” She goes on to add, “We actively seek, mentor, nurture and place writers and artists from the widest possible pool of talent and ensure that their work reaches audiences across London, nationally and internationally.”

She urges participants to let the Royal Court hear about their plans, “I think young playwrights need to try to do everything they can to let theatres know about their work. The new writing scene is incredibly robust and vibrant.”

One of the jewels in the Royal Court’s birthday crown is titled Open Court Festival. “This summer young people will be handed the keys to the Royal Court. The reins of each department are being handed over to the future of theatre. Our Youth Board and ten fantastic young writers will imagine, curate and produce a summer festival of new work. For three weeks in July, audiences can partake in thrilling, exciting events, performances, talks and projects.” Young people are not only invited to the party, but asked to shape the future years of the Royal Court, an iconic hot-bed of contemporary drama.

Source: Guest Blog: The Royal Court’s Young Court

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Chris Sonnex, Royal Court: Is it possible to engineer social change using theatre as a medium?

Interview with  Chris Sonnex : Tottenham and Pimlico Residencies at The Royal Court

Theatre as a weapon of revolution

Chris Sonnex has come back from the jungle and is clearly unsettled. How did the Royal Court’s Community Producer come to be in Calais? When we meet, recent clashes between police and migrants have erupted, after authorities moved in to dismantle the part of the refugee camp known as The Jungle. I learn that Chris is working as an Associate Artist with Good Chance Theatre; a company at the heart of an international crisis.

“I walked into the office and Vicky [Featherstone] asked ‘Can you go out to The Jungle?’ It was a case of right place wrong time or wrong place right time, whichever way you look at it. However, it was the most incredible experience for me. As soon as I got there I realised that food and housing are their basic needs to live, but that it is the theatre that makes them feel alive.” Chris is a social activist and he clearly shows theatre to be a weapon of revolution.

Tottenham and Pimlico Residencies at the Royal Court

We discuss Tottenham and Pimlico a Beyond the Court residency project launched in 2015 in two dissimilar areas of London. He explains,“The work is similar to the National Theatre Scotland’s model; go into a community, find out what that community wants and create something for those people.”

The London postcodes were chosen specifically for social improvement within the locality of The Royal Court. “Tottenham was a place that was heavily on people’s minds because of the riots. In Pimlico it feels like there is less of a community. We set up a market stall and engaged with people who made five minute plays and offered workshops to those people. ”

Using drama and theatre to explore the personal and social issues

Is this work reactionary rather than radical? It seems the best kind of contemporary community theatre reflects the ruling-class control. There is a clear mission to use drama to explore the personal and social issues in Chris’s work. He demonstrates that theatre is political because it is a universal weapon. This holistic approach to participation draws on a range of disciplines including forum theatre, youth work and conflict resolution. This model is adaptable and progressive within diverse groups of people to create broader experiences. I wonder what facilitating opportunities such as these feel like. He laughs, “The best part of the job is the people. There’s always a danger that this work can be token-istic. We want to make quality work with a personal, social and political conscience.”

The work he describes appears wonderful, but I ask what the tangible outcomes are. Is the Royal Courts’ Tottenham and Pimlico project an add-on? Chris doesn’t think so. “First and foremost I see participant’s confidence and communication skills improve greatly, more broadly they find their voice about their lives and express a new found truth to power. But they also find each other, establish friendships: they come to know empowerment. We are the Royal Court of London; we should be reflecting what is going on in society.”

Group play-making and participation, critical to cultivating social change

For all the many utensils in the hands of those cultivating social change, whether community practitioners, teachers or outreach workers, one of the most vital elements is that of group play-making and participation. It is about building a community, where each member has equal rights and responsibilities. Sonnex has quietly grown in stature at his own pace, but it’s why being part of the company has been so invaluable. “Innovation and new voices are at the heart of what the Royal Court is for.” He adds, “For 3 weeks in July, Open Court will see thrilling new events, performances, talks and projects taking place throughout the theatre. It’s thrilling.”

What you start to sense is a theatre outreach programme not just giving a voice to its local community but a programme that is truly complimenting the bold work on its stages. Case in point, “I See You ” is presented as part of the International Playwrights: A Genesis Foundation Project. This work is not dealing with vague ideas; it is ambitious and rooted in a lived experience.

Note: It was 5 weeks ago that I did this interview with Chris Sonnex. Goodchance Theatre, which had  been the harbinger of joy and hope for the refugees at Calais for the last six months shut down last week. This was necessitated by the displacement and destruction of the community due to destruction of the camps at Calais by French authorities. You can read more details related to the closure below.
‘Influencing’ – How can the Arts make a difference in the world?