‘When we travel abroad we see our home with a clarity that we may never have been offered before’: A reflection on Simon Stephens’s journeys from and to British theatre

by Seda Ilter

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

The British playwright Simon Stephens, whose Olivier award-winning play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will be opening in Broadway this year (September), is the most performed contemporary British playwright in mainland Europe. Besides his plays which are frequently exported to other countries, Stephens has collaborated with the German director Sebastian Nübling, writing such plays as Pornography (2007), Trial of Ubu (2010), Three Kingdoms (2011) for him. Stephens’s plays tend to present a concrete picture of Britain and of British culture, an evident example of which is the various cultural references in his take on the 7/7 London Bombings, Pornography. However, beyond the seemingly specific thematic surface Stephens’s work also deals with wide-ranging international concerns and contemporary everyday situations. Some of the recurring themes are the notion of home and its loss, parenthood, human relations, abandonment and social alienation. These everyday presences and concerns respond to experiences, fears, hopes and uncertainties characteristic of the contemporary globalised, late capitalist world. The far-reaching themes of Stephens’s plays, along with his intriguing experiments with the dramaturgical form, which tend to position the text as a stimulus for performance, have attracted the attention of European theatre makers, particularly contemporary German Regietheater (Director’s Theatre). Stephens’s collaborations with Europe and especially his creative encounters with Nübling have been a popular topic in academic circles in the UK. To my knowledge, besides several publications[1] on the subject, two symposiums were organised: ‘British Playwriting/German Directing: Simon Stephens’s Wastwater and Pornographie’ (TaPRA Directing and Dramaturgy WG, London 2011), and ‘Simon Stephens: British Playwright in Dialogue with Europe’ (University of Sussex, 2014).

Both Stephens’s experience of having seen his plays performed outside Britain, and his collaborations with Nübling have influenced the way he views theatre-making in Britain, particularly text-centred, detailed British naturalism. As the title of this piece suggests, Stephens’s journeys away from home have allowed him to:

see the assumptions sitting under our methods of working in the UK, our deference to the author, our hunger for success, our need to interpret meaning through language and our distrust of the non-naturalistic as being culturally specific, not innate and also, at worst as being limited or small-minded.[2]

An important observation Stephens has made through his distanced view of British theatre is the authority of the playwright in the theatre, which he interprets as a flattering yet at the same time deadening position.[3] That is to say, this author- and text-centred mode of theatre-making involves staging the original conception of the writer as presented in the text. Therefore, it limits the performative potentials of a play and restricts directorial and spectatorial interventions.

His conversations with Nübling have inspired Stephens to challenge and go beyond the traditional categories and boundaries of British drama and theatre into another model in which the playwright is a collaborator in the theatre-making process. Thus, the text is only the starting point, an element for performance rather than a rigid blueprint. The British playwright explains this sheer distinction between the theatre cultures in Britain and Germany by reflecting on Nübling’s approach to his plays: ‘Sebastian read[s] my play with clarity and intelligence and entirely re-imagine[s] the thing.’[4] What provoked an epiphany in Stephens was Nübling’s production of Herons (2003)[5] in Stuttgart. The playwright began thinking that ‘there was a life, latent within [his] plays that [he]’d not prescribed’.[6] Stephens returned to Britain with a sense of uneasiness about the position of the writer in theatre and the mimetic naturalism dominating the British theatre scene. This experience of restlessness, originating from his engagement with theatre outside Britain – a ‘multi-authored process of collaboration, conflict, intervention and exploration’-[7] marked an irrevocable change in Stephens’s creative practice, encouraging him to re-imagine his writing in order to allow intervention and reinvention.

The uniqueness of Stephens’s work lies in the fact that it focuses on recognisable everyday spaces, situations and language, and yet refuses to comply with the traditional idea of detailed naturalism that would comfort and indulge the audience. Instead, his plays sit in a liminal space combining social realism with non-teleological architecture and unidentifiable, ‘grotesque abstraction’.[8] Stephens’s innovative vigour to address social-cultural realities through a new dramaturgical language refuses to delimit the systems of signification on stage. The identifiable context of his plays invites the audience to engage empathetically with the contemporary reality whilst at the same time challenging established conceptions and judgements through inventive, unpredicted dramaturgical challenges. Resisting mimetic naturalism and interpretive representation of a unified world without forsaking social reality, Stephens’s ‘brand of naturalism exposes its artifice through an acute acknowledgement of the audience’s [and director’s] role in creating the dramatic fiction.’[9] For instance, Pornography – one of Stephens’s formally most innovative plays – is a play with seven fragmented playlets involving duologues, monologues and a list of descriptions of 52 people killed in the London bombings. The non-linear text also refuses to attribute character names to the speakers. This situates a recognisable quotidian reality presented through colloquial language and familiar figures in a not easily identifiable, abstract formal framework. The deviation from traditional categories of unified plot and psychologically motivated, cogent characterisation liberates the play from definitive interpretation and opens it to various interventions by the director and audience members.

When Stephens attempted to get Pornography staged in Britain, the theatre producers, who are fundamentally bound by financial concerns, deemed it ‘far too German’[10] for the British stage despite its British context, and could not take the artistic risk. On the other hand, in the subsidised theatre system of Germany and in its Regietheater culture this was not a problem, but a commonplace dramaturgical challenge to creatively engage with. Therefore, the play was premiered in Germany where Nübling edited some of the scenes. For instance, he changed the brother and sister incestuous relationship to one between two brothers, and the cast played multiple roles without losing the interior of their characters. After its début in Germany, Pornography was produced in Britain under the direction of Sean Holmes (Edinburgh Fringe Festival, August 2008, and Birmingham Rep, September 2008). For the British production Stephens revised the play by inserting character names before the dialogues and revised the scenes to form a new linear sequence and narrative. The dramaturgical challenges of the original playtext were edited out for the British stage which demonstrates the predominant resistance in British theatre to experiment and creative risks, a resistance mainly due to limited state subsidy and related financial concerns of theatre companies.

However, as Stephens has become an increasingly more acclaimed playwright in Britain and Europe, his dramaturgically challenging plays have started to get produced more easily. Thus, Stephens’s position as a British-European playwright whose inventive, unconventional works attract the attention of British producers has influenced the British theatre and new writing practices for performance. It has responded to and foregrounded an increasing desire of British theatre-makers and audience to experiment with novel forms, an emerging, albeit limited, tendency in British theatre to open the stage to innovative plays. The plays of such writers as David Greig, Mark Ravenhill, Martin Crimp and Tim Crouch are telling examples of this slow but promising change that tends to move British theatre beyond its naturalist comfort zone. The experiments in new writing should be accompanied by experiments in the directorial approach to plays so that the stage can respond to and accommodate the formal challenges of the text.In Britain, more often than not, there is still an orthodox adherence to the written text by many directors, unless the text itself asks for the opposite through explicit directions, as in Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life (1997), or if the writer is not working closely with the director or the director and writer are not the same person (e.g. Tim Crouch). Hence, British theatre culture and practices have still a long way to go in order to engage with alternative modes of dramaturgical and theatrical expressions, and to open up a more collaborative theatre-making process. Stephens’s influential work within the British theatre and playwriting scene is the result of a cross-fertilisation with colleagues in Europe, which has gradually influenced artistic practices and audience experience in his homeland. The more he has crossed the borders of Britain towards Europe, the clearer the view of home has become, and has led Stephens and hopefully British theatre to challenge and go beyond the boundaries of ingrained theatre systems and culture.

Seda Ilter is a drama and theatre scholar currently working as an Associate Lecturer on the Text and Performance and Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance MAs, at Birkbeck College, University of London. She holds a PhD in contemporary drama, and her research interests lie in the theory and practice of modern and contemporary theatre, aesthetics and politics of new media in theatre, new British writing, and writing practices for performance. Seda is also a freelance translator (of British plays into Turkish language) and a theatre director. Her recent project involves the translation and staging of Tim Crouch’s The Author in Istanbul.

[1] David Barnett, ‘”I’ve been told […] that the play is far too German”: The Interplay of Institution and Dramaturgy in Shaping British Reactions to German Theatre’, in Rebecca Braun and Lyn Marvin (eds.), Cultural Impact in the German Context: Studies in Transmission, Reception, and Influence (Rochester NY: Camden House, 2010), pp. 150-66.

Jacqueline Bolton, ‘Playwrights and Plays: Simon Stephens’, in Dan Rebellato (ed.), Modern British Playwriting 2000-2009 (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2013), pp. 99-125.

[2] Simon Stephens, ‘Skydiving Blindfolded: Five Things I Learned From Sebastian Nübling’ [http://www.theatertreffen-blog.de/tt11/artikel-zu/stueckemarkt/skydiving-blindfolded/] (Accessed 17 June 2014).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Produced by the Stuttgart Schauspielhaus in co-production with the Junge Schauspielhaus in Basel.

[6] Simon Stephens, ‘Skydiving Blindfolded’


[7] Ibid.

[8] Chris Wilkinson, ‘Noises Off: April Fools article’. This interview with Stephens was printed in the April edition of Noises Off, and posted on Andrew Haydon’s blog: www.postcardsgods.blogspot.cu.uk/2009/04/noises-off-april-fools-article.html

[9] Jacqueline Bolton, ‘Playwrights and Plays: Simon Stephens’, in Dan Rebellato (ed.), Modern British Playwriting 2000-2009 (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2013), pp. 99-125, p. 105.

[10] Stephens quoted in Brian Logan, “One Day in July,” The Guardian, 19 June 2007.