Article by Colin Ellwood. -
In its combination of formal experimentation and intricate insight into the contours of the human heart, Simon Stephens’s work is both subtle and supple. The former is mainly a matter of meaning, the latter of form, specifically grace of form and of the relation of form to content. The suppleness I’d suggest is an indirect consequence of his work’s underpinning excavation of common human need and potential, of the core ‘this-ness’ of being fully, thrivingly human; In terms of content this ‘primary human’ is sometimes revealed, sometimes implied and sometimes made loud though its conspicuous absence in his plays (in the way a Neolithic grave can imply its obliterated skeleton through the positions of satellite grave-goods, themselves indicative of an international lattice of trading routes and networks); in terms of form, his work supplely ‘embraces’ his characters’ humanity however challenging their behavior, however traumatic their experience. Whether or not a character’s centre ‘holds’ (and he increasingly explores the contemporary condition of un-centred cosmopolitan rootlessness) the ‘holding’ embrace of Simon’s texts always seems to do so, without ever becoming rigid or unresponsive – or for that matter rose-tinted.
In regard to a writer whose early work in particular seems to explore behavior that is predominantly and even excessively ‘male-pattern’, distilled even to the point of autism, is it fanciful to propose that there is in fact something almost maternal about the fluent grace of Simon’s ‘embracing’ use of form? Such might be doubly surprising since in content his work often explores the consequences of a mother figure’s absence. Broadly speaking of course there are two aspects to motherhood: the aspect of bearing and the aspect of nurturing towards autonomy, associated respectively with ‘roots’ and ‘routes’; with origins and outcomes. In the ancient Greek (and so root-European) creation myth, for example, it is possible to distinguish these two separate functions in the stories of Gaia the Earth mother and of her daughter-in-law Rhia (the latter not perhaps insignificantly the name of the lead character in Simon’s latest play). Both give birth to gods but are then initially prevented by their jealous husbands from nurturing them, from guiding and supporting them in the world. Key parts of these mothers’ stories relate to their successful struggle to achieve this. Simon’s supple forms seem to perform this function for his (literally and metaphorically) motherless characters: they are ‘held’ by them, nurtured towards more realized or acknowledged versions of themselves
In this formal ‘maternal’ encompassing of ‘routes out’ in relation to (what are in terms of his dramatic ‘content’ often absent) maternal ‘roots from’, Simon is, I’d say, a necessary playwright for our times. Increasingly we are exiles from the womb, rootlessly adrift in international waters, negotiating overlapping and dissonant cosmopolitan networks. One risk of this condition is that we retreat reactively into whichever dugout appears to offer the most insulating womb-substitute. Call this the ‘Brexit response’. A countervailing risk is that we anaesthetize ourselves to drift in contingency and cynicism, never quite experiencing the grounding immediacy of the ‘moment’. Simon’s play-embraces often formally and gracefully aim to trace and contain the many tensions inherent here. Thus he often in content explores the nature and impact of an act within the matrix. All human acts are of course in a sense acts of violence against the flow of the universe, against entropy (or sometimes deliberately contributing to entropy). But in addition to acknowledging and weighing such (conventionally ‘male’?) acts Simon also reminds us – through form AND content - that there is also often something else on offer here that, in contrast, works non-violently against entropy: namely the apparent miracle of spontaneous self-organizing that is life itself. In fact an important dimension of love as portrayed in his work is the cherishing of and connecting to this latent emergent patterning, this shape and meaning and support that is (maternally?) ‘offered’ rather than imposed or enforced by human ‘act’ - in individuals as in cultural structures.
Of course, whatever its origins and nature – in a theatrical play as in a transnational culture - if an encompassing structure is too rigid (and not supple at all) it can appear to us as a devouring and obliterating machine; contrastingly if too pliant, it dissolved completely into entropy and offers us no support, no embrace. Simon’s earlier plays tend in content to feature societal machines so tight they provoke individual nihilistic acts of violence or desperate dislocated retreats into inner space: often a kind of ‘punk’ response on the part of alienated central characters (punk of being the nihilistic ‘end point’ C19th cultural Romanticism). A more recent work, Three Kingdoms, plots the central characters’ more measured attempt to wrestle the ‘machine’ into recognizing and honouring the fundamentally human: in it, a good old fashioned honest ‘linear’ police investigation tries to draw a lost and obliterated soul - a soul almost literally dissolved into the broader matrix, become a disembodied ‘head’ - back into the embrace of an ethical, compassionate, acknowledging ‘root’. Here –just– the centre holds, and connects meaningfully with the matrix. In the process this play in particular explores what we share as humans and. perhaps in a broader way, as Europeans, since the central holding and embracing matrix is, here, Europe itself. This ‘multiple commonality’ offers the potential for true connectedness, a going with the human and cultural ‘grain’ rather than against it, so intuiting patterns in the apparent flux, meaning in the seeming chaos. In the play, language is a case in point, a pattern in the apparent polyglot noise that if lovingly and care-fully attended to, might offer genuine meaning and human intimacy. Three Kingdoms however also explores what threatens to divide us; our tendency to mis-construct and mis-recognize the identity of others; and also the risk of being tempted and fooled by the synthetic intimacy offered by increasingly ubiquitous variants of, for example, pornography.
An earlier play (perhaps a key ’threshold’ play in many senses) On the Shore of the Wide World is formally poised between structures (houses, metal boxes and by extension, families that equivocally nurture and/or constrict) and the seeming chaos, multiplicity and flux of the universe. An apparently random and catastrophic event generated from the latter crashes into the former (the same is true in for example the monologue Sea Wall, as in the short play Morning). Ultimately, the embracing and shaping containers – the maternal, if you will - hold; as a consequence humanity, love, connection and meaning survive and are even enhanced, in content as well as in dramatic form (magically, and beautifully, the dramatic form deployed here suggests a nurturing pattern in the universe that is benevolent and even maternal)
There might also be something in all the above that is applicable to how Simon’s play texts are most fruitfully engaged with by directors, their most resonant productions achieved. There are supposedly (and notoriously) two contrasting directorial approaches, associated respectively with UK and mainland-European traditions. The former involves clasping the text-matrix tightly, provoking a ‘necessary’ song; the latter engages as if the text were a musical instrument, to be made to resonate with a song of the director’s discovery and invention. But in Simon’s practice both traditions involve the director sincerely responding to the implicit offered pattern and meaning in the ‘specific other’ of the text-matrix. The difference is of degree not type. Both approaches are at root a form of nurturing and of being in turn nurtured. As is the case with, say, Europe in Three Kingdoms, the structure can be held closely or loosely; the important thing being that it is engaged with for what it really and fundamentally is and offers. Simon has very strong ongoing creative relationships with exemplars of both ‘schools’, for example Simon Usher as quintessential representative of the UK ‘text’ tradition and Sebastian Nubling of the mainland European approach.
Taking all the above into consideration I think Simon Stephens is the perfect dedicatee of the Dreams Before Dawn Festival of radical and emergent European theatre, especially in this moment of the UK's political self-excision. Simon’s Europe I would suggest is - like Simon’s plays, and the ‘DNA’ of Simon’s core preferred production process - a Europe not of the imposition of rules but of offered possibilities and connections; of both roots and routes, origins and potentials all equally cherished; an algorithmic mapping of echo and commonality; of noise become pattern; one that values latency over explicitness; offer over demand. His work honours the individual vector in the European matrix; the point in the embracing and dispersing cultural field, according priority to neither, celebrating and balancing both. And that, surely, is what the Dreams Before Dawn Festival is about too. All are enactments, celebrations and excavations of the Mother load.
Colin Ellwood, November 2018
Simon Stephens Biography
Simon Stephens is amongst the most prominent and innovative contemporary playwrights both within the UK and internationally. He began his theatrical career in the literary department of the Royal Court Theatre, where he ran its Young Writers' Programme. His plays for theatre include Bluebird (Royal Court Theatre, London, 1998) Herons (Royal Court Theatre, 2001, directed by Simon Usher); Port (Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 2002); One Minute (Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 2003 and Bush Theatre, London, 2004); Christmas (Bush Theatre, 2004); Country Music (Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 2004); On the Shore of the Wide World (Royal Exchange Theatre and National Theatre, London, 2005); Motortown (Royal Court Theatre, 2006); Pornography (Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hanover, 2007; Edinburgh Festival/Birmingham Rep, 2008 and Tricycle Theatre, London, 2009); Harper Regan (National Theatre, 2008); Sea Wall (Bush Theatre, 2008/Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 2009); Heaven (Traverse Theatre, 2009); Punk Rock (Lyric Hammersmith, London, and Royal Exchange Theatre, 2009); The Trial of Ubu (Essen Schauspielhaus/Toneelgroep Amsterdam, 2010); A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky (co-written with David Eldridge and Robert Holman; Lyric Hammersmith, London, 2010); Marine Parade (co-written with Mark Eitzel; Brighton International Festival, 2010); T5 (Traverse Theatre, 2010); Wastwater (Royal Court Theatre Downstairs, 2011); Morning (Lyric Hammersmith, 2012); an adaptation of A Doll's House (Young Vic, 2012); an adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (National Theatre, 2012); Three Kingdoms Lyric Hammersmith; Munich Schauspielhaus; No99 Theater Estonia; Blindsided (Royal Exchange, 2014); Birdland (Royal Court, 2014); Carmen Disruption (Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg, Almeida Theatre 2015); Heisenberg (Manhatten Theater Club Broadway, Wyndhams Theatre, West End 2015/2018); Nuclear War (Royal Court Theatre 2017); Ria (Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg 2018/19)
Awards include the Pearson Award for Best New Play, 2001, for Port; Olivier Award for Best New Play for On the Shore of the Wide World, 2005; and for Motortown German critics in Theater Heute's annual poll voted him Best Foreign Playwright, 2007. His adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Play.