Simon Stephens is truly on the cutting edge of British play-writing: the man that boldly brought the London bombings to the stage in 2008 with Pornography and tackled teenage murder in Punk Rock is also an Artistic Associate at the Lyric Hammersmith. This year the Lyric takes the world premiere of his new play Morning to the Edinburgh Fringe, not with professional actors but with the venue’s own youth theatre. I met Stephens in his cosy Shoreditch office to talk about how this project, with the Lyric’s Artistic Director Sean Holmes at the helm, came to being.
“I’ve been Artistic Associate at the Lyric since Sean became the Artistic Director there in 2009 and one of the first things that struck us was how, unlike nearly every other theatre in London, it not only feels like it welcomes young people, it feels actually as if the young people are welcoming the older ones in. It feels like it’s their theatre because there’s such a energy brought about by the young company there. It brings a real sense of ownership.”
The Lyric Hammersmith is renowned for the commitment it places on working with young people. By casting members of the existing young company in the world premiere of his new play, Stephens is offering these aspiring actors a unique opportunity in a country where youth theatre is rarely given the attention it deserves. The inspiration to do this seems to have come from his work with German director Sebastian Nubling. Stephens has the rare accolade of being performed extensively throughout Europe and particularly Germany, where he formed a creative relationship with Nubling, who presented the critically acclaimed Three Kingdoms at the Lyric earlier in the year and who Stephens describes as “one of the most significant directors in the German-speaking world”.
“It’s really interesting to me that every year, or every two years if his schedule permits it, he does a show with the youth theatre in Basel in Switzerland. So you’ve got this kind of curious situation where one of the best directors in the country is making a show with young amateur actors in his home town in Basel and that’s the kind of thing that would be difficult to imagine in the UK. Someone like Marianne Elliot making a show with amateur teenage actors and applying the same kind of level of rigour and hard work and determination that she brings to all of her work to them.” Inspired by the enthusiasm injected into German Youth theatre and the readiness to present it on stage, Holmes and Stephens decided that they would come together to write and direct a play for the young company that could be taken seriously as a piece of work rather than sidelined as a youth theatre production. Stephens was keen to produce something that could translate well not only onto the German stage but throughout Europe.
“I came up with the idea of writing a play and removing all references to real nouns, so this is a play that really could be set anywhere; it could be on the edges of any major city in Europe. Sebastian’s going to direct it in January with the youth theatre in Basel and Sean’s doing it at the Traverse in the summer. The idea being, hopefully, that we bring the Basel production over to London and then take the Lyric production over to Basel, so we do a kind of school exchange. They can all stay in each other’s houses.”
The term coming-of-age can be a very vague and limiting one that suggests a play made up of young teenage characters who must, almost by default, deal with the trials and tribulations of that transition into adulthood and the often hard lessons that are learnt along the way. But what does the term mean for the characters in Morning?
“It’s not a term I’d use to describe the play because I’m not entirely sure what it means. It denotes the possibility of accruing experience but it kind of suggests that after a certain point you stop accruing experience. I can understand why it [Morning] is described as a coming-of-age play. That kind of makes sense on a marketing level, but I think the play is the most moral play that I’ve written. It’s a play about murder and the emotional consequences of having murdered, and what it feels like to kill and how you continue to live, having killed. I think that’s something that fascinates me – it’s always been something of on obsession, especially in my writing about young people.”
He goes on to jokingly suggest that Herons, Punk Rock and Morning could be described as an accidental trilogy of plays about teenagers killing each other. All jokes aside, it is surely this tendency to delve into complex and unsettling ideas that truly marks Stephens out as a great British dramatist.
“The play started off interrogating the question, ‘is it possible for people to behave without motivation?’ Recent neurological science would suggest that the way we’ve interpreted behaviour for the post industrial period – along the linear lines of causation and action - is inaccurate, by which I mean it’s not as we thought for the last 100 years that people do things for a reason, but rather they do things randomly and then in the aftermath of behaviour they make sense of what they’ve done by imposing a narrative upon it. I was really interested in finding a form that dramatised that.”
The play centres on Stephanie, a young girl who kills her boyfriend in a seemingly unprovoked attack, something which Stephens tells me was influenced by the horrific true story of a young man in wales. “The play is not about that, but it’s a consideration of what that must have felt like. I started off with the question, ‘is it possible for somebody to do something as extreme as murder without any apparent motivation and without any consequence?’ What I ended up writing about was the moral horror of what it feels like to kill. You take an action as horrific as a murder and staging that necessarily demands the question, why did she kill him? And actually by creating a dramatic language that forces the audience to think, it engages not just the intellect and the process of constructing narrative, but also the intellect and the process of constructing morality. Structurally, the comparison was made by someone yesterday that it’s like Macbeth in that the murder happens really near the beginning and the play is about the fallout of the murder. In that sense, like Macbeth. There is a sniff of a morality tale about it but y’know, there are some good jokes in it as well.”
Morning will be presented at the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh from the 1 to 19 of August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, after which it will return to London for a short run at the Lyric Hammersmith.
Image credit: Simon Kane