Tag Archives: Simon Stephens

“Nuclear War” at the Royal Court

A combination of dance, song and poetry, Simon Stephens’ new creation will make heads spin and hearts ache.

While the writer might dislike the word, ‘experimental’ is an accurate description. This is a piece that pushed boundaries well before an audience even got near it, by privileging the always collaborative nature of theatre-making. Stephens affords remarkable liberty to those he works with: his script is a “series of suggestions” left deliberately open – just a dozen pages of text with no characters. Both his role as a playwright and the job of director/choreographer Imogen Knight are reappraised and opened up.

So what’s the result? The text’s main theme rings out: Nuclear War is a meditation on grief, movingly depicted. Maureen Beattie takes the lead, recounting a day like a contemporary Mrs Dalloway, but stricken by loss. Recollections of moments in hospital are the clearest and most effective. This is a woman out of her mind with mourning and loneliness.

The character Beattie so meticulously depicts is accompanied by performers Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Gerrome Miller, Beatrice Scirocchi and Andrew Sheridan. All four give committed performances but with the actions of the group they form, the evening becomes confusing. You could call this quartet a chorus, why not: revealing internal thoughts and adding a running commentary…of sorts. Mortality is linked to time, with snatches of Arthur Eddington’s ideas injected. And then come some puzzling props. Lasting only 45 minutes, Knight hasn’t allowed long enough to explore the depth of Stephens’ text.

If you’re grumpy, a sense this was all more fun to work on than to watch creeps in. However, aided by lighting guru Lee Curran, there’s some incredible imagery here. The chorus become dogs, and bizarre fetishists, before transforming into ghosts to say a goodbye to their grieving companion. It’s a peremptory departure, despite the resolution it offers, and I wished for more of these unforgettable moments from such an intrepid trial.

Until 6 May 2017

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Chloe Lamford

“The Threepenny Opera” at the National Theatre

While the chance to see Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s famous work is welcome, regrettably, this production isn’t the finest hour of anyone involved. There’s nothing embarrassing – there are even good bits – but Simon Stephens’ new adaptation lacks charge, while Rufus Norris’ direction of his talented cast is low voltage.

Of course it’s fine to change the original setting (Brecht and Weill used John Gay’s earlier work themselves). Mack the Knife, aka Captain Macheath, the libidinous crook whose adventures we follow, is recast as an East End gangster. Neat enough. But not specifying a time period for this ‘updating’ diminishes its power. The dark reflections on human nature are robbed of satire, falling into a generic gloom that fails to challenge. Stephens’ lyrics are admirably clear, but they can’t shock – no matter how many expletives are crammed in – as it feels those involved would like them to.

The Brechtian staging of the work is tokenistic. There are knowing gags, including Keystone coppery and Buster Keaton, but the production feels lost or, more specifically, better suited to a smaller stage. Regular visitors to the National Theatre will know how powerful the Olivier can be – even empty – but here, Vicki Mortimer’s set of stairs and paper screens feels both slim and cumbersome. And there are a lot of signs to read – tricky from the circle. Impressive moments of staging have to be ascribed to Paule Constable’s lighting.

Haydn Gwynne and Nick Holder
Haydn Gwynne and Nick Holder

The biggest disappointment here is the cast. There are good performances when you’d expect great ones. Rory Kinnear takes the lead, his singing voice a pleasant surprise, but even his brilliant acting can’t hold things together. The excellent Rosalie Craig, as his young bride Polly, fails to bring her normal shine (maybe the interpretation of the role as an accountant hampers too much), while Sharon Small, as one of Mack’s many former lovers, sounds painful. The show belongs to the Peachums, Macheath’s enemies, played by Nick Holder and Haydn Gwynne. With this malicious Mr and Mrs, exaggerations in the piece pay off. Elsewhere, this Threepenny Opera feels deflated.

Until 1 October 2016

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith

“Herons” at the Lyric Hammersmith

Featuring yet more troubled youths, playwright Simon Stephens’ 2001 play has been revised under the direction of Sean Holmes. Set one year on from a murder (details are deliberately vague) – there are bullies, broken homes and lots of lies. This is a frustratingly slippery, provocatively outrageous play. But by carefully playing with naturalism, Stephens’ unsettling world of disturbing imagery and ambiguity is brought to life.

The direction emphasises Stephens’ oddities too emphatically: think gnomic pauses and sudden shouting. But Holmes has a crisp hold on the play’s tension and it’s exciting even while you scratch your head. Hyemi Shin’s ambitious design, with its flooded stage looking great during fight scenes, is fussy, if impressive. But with the heavyhanded symbolism of a dam wall threatening to burst at a pivotal moment, the set assaults us with metaphor.

The production has, appropriately, a fledgling cast. At times all the strangeness causes problems. The school uniforms are bizarre, the behaviour outlandish. And who on earth walks around with an inflatable doll? The point is that these teenagers frequently behave like infants. Face painting and blowing bubbles one minute, swearing enough to make a sailor blush the next. Do the characters even understand how offensive they are? The play’s most troublesome scene – an anal rape with a golf club handle that’s difficult to justify – leaves the protagonists themselves in shock.

A scene from Herons by Simon Stephens @ Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. Directed by Sean Holmes. (Opening 21-01-16) ©Tristram Kenton 01/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

Moses Adejimi, Ella McLoughlin and Billy Matthews (above) make a tight trio of bully boys, creating a choral round out of Stephens’ expletive-obsessed script. It’s a shame more wasn’t made of the writer’s lyricism. Matthews takes the lead, reminiscent of Pinkie in Brighton Rock. But, like his nature-loving victim, performed valiantly by Max Gill, extreme reactions place a barrier between characters and the audience; maybe it’s best to think of this as a fence through which we watch a human zoo?

Another bludgeoning simile – films of primates distractingly projected throughout the play – confirms the production as a nature study rather than anthropology. There’s the observation (twice) that the youngsters aren’t allowed to be children anymore but Holmes moves us a long way from social comment: the focus is that “in nature terrible things happen all the time”. It’s a questionable exercise of dubious appeal.

Until 13 February 2016

www.lyric.co.uk

Photos by Tristram Kenton

“Song From Far Away” at the Young Vic

The combination of respected playwright Simon Stephens and director of the moment Ivo van Hove makes this new play a hot ticket. A demanding monologue, presented as letters written by well-to-do young banker Willem recalling his brother’s death, funeral and family relationships, it’s an intense 80 minutes that has exceptional moments.

Dutch actor Eelco Smits gives a wholly admirable performance in a difficult role – not least because a good part of it is performed naked, and mostly since the character is curiously bland. While it’s clear he’s a tortured soul, the reasons why remain tantalisingly unexplored. Stephens carefully controls Willem’s above-average executive angst and the audience’s latent sympathy. Moments of empathy for his parents are moving, his own lost love likewise, but so much is left unsaid, despite detailing his life and grief.

Eelco_Smits_in_Song_From_Far_Away._Photo_by_Jan_Versweyveld_3Stephens’ writing is poetic and full of satisfying observations. The ordinary is addressed in a meticulous manner that grows on you. But it’s hard to disguise the play’s thinness. Nonetheless, van Hove makes the show super stylish with a portentous atmosphere. There’s a fulsome appreciation of the silences in life, which Stephens writes eloquently about and enriches Mark Eitzel’s recurring song for the piece. Above all, there’s some stunning staging, akin to still lifes with nudes, through the exquisite design and lighting by Jan Versweyveld, which enforce the play’s understated poignancy.

Until 19 September 2015

www.youngvic.org

Photo by Jan Versweyveld

“Carmen Disruption” at the Almeida Theatre

When you enter the Almeida Theatre for Simon Stephens’ latest play, Carmen Disruption, it’s via the stage. It seems part of a campaign by the Islington venue to shake up its audience and perfectly embodies this innovative and imaginative play’s spirit. If you’ve bought a ticket, congratulate yourself and take a bow… but be careful not to walk into an animatronic bull on your way in.

It doesn’t get any less weird. The play follows the nervous breakdown of a singer, who performs the role of Bizet’s Carmen all over the world, interweaving monologues from others, cast as archetypes from that opera, accompanied by a real singer as a chorus. Carmen Disruption clearly has enough arty touches to make plenty of eyes roll. But it works. Stephens’ magical touch creates a world of pure theatre – visionary and inspiring.

Stephens’ work can’t be easy for the actors but the performances are uniformly good. Viktoria Vizin, who has sung Carmen in 17 productions, has a voice that blows you away. Sharon Small, as The Singer, is superbly believable; I bet she’s been chatting to Vizin a lot about the pressured nomadic lifestyle of an opera star. Playing Stephens’ version of the title character, recast as a narcissistic rent boy, Jack Farthing is especially strong.

Michael Longhurst directs the production marvellously, with a control that gives Stephens’ text perfect space to breath. Lizzie Clachan’s design, along with stunning lighting by Jack Knowles, matches the poetry of the piece. Vitally, the whole team seems convinced by the power of the play.

Stephens’ motif is loneliness. His characters are isolated, desperate and frustrated, using whatever they can, mostly sex, to connect with others. Yet, despite some extreme behaviour and extravagant lifestyles, we can always connect with them. And no matter how strange the play feels, it is rooted. Much is sure to be made of the technology in the play – phones are plentiful and often commented upon – which gives Carmen Disruption its contemporary commentary, but the play’s power comes from universal themes.

Until 23 May 2015

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by March Brenner

“Birdland” at the Royal Court

Simon Stephens’ new play Birdland, currently showing at the Royal Court, follows pop star Paul as he reaches the end of a massive world tour. An investigation into fame and fortune, about a spoilt singer with ridiculous riders and a subsequent sorry end, the topic might seem a little old hat. Let’s face it: sympathy for celebrity is a tough call. But Stephens’ treatment of the subject, combined with director Carrie Cracknell’s startling contribution, makes this an intriguing piece. Like a really great pop song, this is a play that will worm its way into your head and stay there a long time.

We don’t know what kind of music Paul is famous for, or if he’s any good. We just see him before the gigs, in a series of luxurious hotels, spending money, taking drugs and in one scene, demanding a locally grown peach be delivered to his suite. And Cracknell’s deft direction shows us that untold wealth is just as boring as the rest of us imagine it to be.

Birdland is more about money than music; all Paul’s experiences are commodified, as he tells an interviewer that ‘everything can be quantified’. More distastefully, he is abusive to every woman he meets. Make no mistake, Paul is grotesque: yet somehow, Stephens makes him play on our sympathies.

Much credit must go to Andrew Scott for his performance in the lead. His stage presence and sheer sex appeal make it easy to believe he could be a pop star. His descent into madness is moving and he brings out the complexity of Stephens’ character – a kind of idiot savant with a touch of Candide. His physical investment in the part, with jerky avian dance movements, is committed and in keeping with Cracknell’s stylised production.

Scott is joined by a gifted ensemble that takes on several other characters, regardless of the age or gender of the roles, and the performances are uniformly superb. The set design from Ian MacNeil, with a stage surrounded by dirty water that retracts as the action becomes grimmer and forces the cast to get their feet wet, is remarkable. The whole night might contain far too much metaphor for many but I found it thought provoking. The imagery and the ideas, especially Paul’s claim to be “completely human” despite his lack of empathy, gives Birdland a haunting quality.

Until 31 May 2014

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Richard Hubertsmith

Written 30 April 2014 for The London Magazine

“A Doll’s House” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

The Young Vic’s widely acclaimed production of A Doll’s House opened its West End transfer this week at the Duke of York’s theatre. Directed by Carrie Cracknell, Ibsen’s classic story of Nora, a housewife and mother in 19th century Norway, and the breakdown of her seemingly perfect marriage, is tackled with great verve and features a superb spinning set by designer Ian Macneil. The show deserves all its many critics’ stars and is not to be missed – it only runs until 26 October.

The star draw is Hattie Morahan in the lead role. She picked up both the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards last year, and it’s easy to see why. She plays Nora as naïve – but only because of the society she was born into. Morahan makes the limitations women experienced at the time seem normal, no matter how bitter. Nora’s flashes of brilliance, as she comes to understand and rebel against constraints, are believable and moving.

Morahan is joined by a cast that is close to faultless. Caroline Martin (pictured above with Morhan) gives depth to the role of her old school friend, whose marriage of convenience has been a more obvious failure, and Nick Fletcher gives a magnificently understated performance as the money lender who wreaks havoc on Nora’s ideal home. Hiding her debts from her bank manager husband is only one of the lies her marriage is based on. As her partner Torvald, Dominic Rowan has to tackle sexist remarks it’s to be hoped make most people blush. The commodification of his wife may seem incredible, but Rowan manages to bring Cracknell’s pointed production home – Torvald’s fantasies about his wife raise uncomfortable questions relevant to men and women today.

This marital master and his slave are fantastic creations and with Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Ibsen’s text they breath anew. Injecting a strain of ‘Englishness’ into the play makes it recognisable, and there’s a cleverly suggested Pre-War feel to much of the language. Even better, ironic touches (again praise for Morahan here – her delivery is perfection) elaborate Ibsen’s dark humour and there’s even a sexiness here that has a disturbing edge. Stephens’ script is the key to this doll’s house being such a big success.

Until 26 October 2013

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Written 16 August 2013 for The London Magazine

“Port” at the National Theatre

Following the success of their production of The Curious Incident (which transfers to the Apollo Theatre in March) it feels as if the National Theatre is rewarding writer Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott with a revival of the 1992 play, Port, which they first worked on in Manchester. Set in Stockport, where they both grew up, it’s a piece close to their hearts – indeed the whole play is sincere to a fault.

Fulfilling plenty of prejudices Londoners might have about the north, Port is a grim affair that traces the life of Racheal from 11 to 23. The poor girl’s trauma starts early when her mother abandons her. And things don’t get much better as she moves into dismal jobs and abusive relationships. Everyday Stockport is dysfunctional and depressing, its inhabitants desperate and cruel as they stumble through life.

You can see why the play has its advocates. Stephens’ expletive-filled language has its own kind of beauty – full of skilled observations and rich imagery. And he has written wonderful roles: from Rachael’s mum, who only appears in the first scene and is performed skilfully by Liz White, to the lead, played from child to woman by Kate O’Flynn in a remarkable performance that can’t be praised enough. But the play is so bleak that it becomes monochrome and, under Elliott’s static direction, monotonous.

Giving away whether or not Rachael sets sail for brighter shores would be to ruin what little tension Port has and unfortunately the ending feels tacked on and unconvincing. Sadly, despite the commitment of the cast, it is unlikely that Port will win many hearts.

Until 24 March 2013

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Kevin Cummings

Written 1 February 2013 for The London Magazine