‘The danger of our island mentality is that we can spend too much of our energies looking inwards on our own strengths, and imagining the rest of the world is looking at us too. This is as true in the theatre world as it is in the spheres of economics or politics’.1 British writer Simon Stephens wrote this in May 2012 in an article promoting the UK premiere of his play Three Kingdoms (2011), but a little over four years later these words have accrued a new and extraordinarily timely meaning. On the morning of 24 June 2016, British citizens awoke to find that the vote for Brexit (British exit from the European Union) had won a slight majority. Stephens, writing in 2012, could not have anticipated this important event in British history, despite the fact that Three Kingdoms was ‘defined by a fascination with the UK’s relationship to Europe’.2 And yet, his work in many ways lends itself to a study of British culture post-Brexit. The timelines of academic publication mean that this special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review on Stephens was prepared long before the UK referendum, and indeed even now, at the time of its publication, the terms of Brexit remain deeply uncertain; nevertheless, in introducing the online Interventions that accompany the print journal, it would be odd not to take this as an opportunity to reflect, albeit briefly, on the nature of the ‘island mentality’ observed by Stephens at such a pivotal point in British history.
Stephens’ complex and layered plays tend not to target their topics like rabbits in headlights. Instead, they come at their themes indirectly: interrogating the traumatic intervention of British troops in the Iraq War by exploring personal relationships much closer to home, as is the case with Motortown (2006), for example; or honing in on the reifying effects of consumer culture and its impact on perception and empathy as a way of dealing with the horrific bombings on the London transport network on 7 July 2005, as in Pornography (2007). I am also mindful of how Stephens’ new version of Odön von Horváth’s Kasimir and Karoline – re-branded as The Funfair, and premiering in the inaugural season of Home arts centre in Manchester in 2015 – was a response to a rising tide of nationalism, as Stephens recalled a week after the UK General Election in 2015 that saw a Conservative government re-elected with an increased mandate shorn of coalition bonds:
What became clear last week was that this poverty and despair [evident not least in an upswing in reliance on food banks] is manifesting itself in a move towards nationalism – a policy born out of hostility and exclusivity, and defined by suspicion and a sense of rage. […] I wanted to write a play about this shift. I wanted to write about Ukip [UK Independence Party] and its craven, vicious manipulation of the disenfranchised and disempowered. I wanted to write about the smug hypocrisy of [David] Cameron, [George] Osborne and [Boris] Johnson as they deregulate the companies owned by their classmates, cheered on by the editors who drank with them in the Bullingdon Club. I wanted to write about the Britain that tore itself apart at the polling booths as it voted out of suspicion rather than hope.3
Three years on from having signalled the dangers of an ‘island mentality’, and a year before Brexit, Stephens was still placing nationalism at the heart of his work. This is what makes me question the extent to which the British theatre community was ignorant of the possibility that Brexit might actually happen, as theatre critic Dominic Cavendish has suggested; instead, as fellow critic Matt Trueman has usefully queried: ‘it’s not like theatre’s had its head in the sand. We might not have seen Brexit: the Musical – and nor would we want to – but playwrights have explored the social and political factors that fed into the result’.4 Stephens is one of those playwrights. In hindsight, plays such as those just surveyed seem remarkably prescient. Integration and assimilation; being at home or feeling disconnected from home; empathy fatigue; ‘island mentality’; fear of trust, mutuality and shared endeavour; abandonment; social atomisation; stultifying imbrication in the global networks of consumer capitalism; parochialism; and, as Zac Kline touches upon in his contribution to the print issue’s Backpages, transition… You don’t have to dig deep into Stephens’ oeuvre to find these themes – at times starkly juxtaposed – and their renewed relevance for the contemporary moment. Brexit may not have been explicitly addressed in his work, but it ran deep in its subconscious. The problem is that many of us, his audiences (and perhaps also Stephens himself), were either too complacent, or too blinkered, to believe in its likelihood.
In addition to the prescient subconscious of his texts for theatre, Stephens’ success and particularly his collaborative activities in Germany – not least in his work with the German director Sebastian Nübling, as several contributors to the print issue document – mark him out as an especially European British playwright. In his early- to mid-career, Germany was more sympathetic toward Stephens’ experimental work than Britain, at least on the basis of his first attempts to stage Pornography in the UK, which required reworking its otherwise fluid presentation (no characters are listed in the play text, for instance, which reads more like prose than a play). Stephens also for a long time struggled to have his work staged in the United States (see Christian Parker’s piece in Backpages), and while his work has now been staged on Broadway and off-Broadway, it is in Europe where his work has taken off outside of the UK.5
For the opening Intervention, Louise LePage curates a series of filmed responses to a provocation offered by Billy Smart, from which the film gets its name: Things That Always Tend to Happen in Simon Stephens’ Plays. In it, LePage, Dan Rebellato, Chris Megson and Aleks Sierz take Smart’s provocation to task, which, while prompted by his response to a production of Stephens’ Carmen Disruption (2014) at the Almeida Theatre in 2015, sets out a number of insightfully critical observations about recurring themes and traits in Stephens’ work, from Stockport to internet pornography and dead or lost children. As Smart points out, Carmen Disruption typifies Stephens’ style and preoccupations in ways that, for him, risk self-parody; however, perhaps one of the play’s core themes – social atomisation in postmodern Europe – lends itself to such a style. Stephens is a writer for postmodern Europe, at once compromised and enabling, just as he is a writer for Britain as it finds itself caught in a nationalist upswing. Each of Smart’s respondents eloquently and convincingly tease out the nuances that are embedded in Stephens’ work, and suggest that recurrent concerns and traits can bolster rather than unhinge a writer’s significance, especially when the targets of those concerns and traits (consumerism, alienation and social atomisation, etc.) are still – and perhaps increasingly – present in domestic life, as well as international relations.
Melissa Poll’s piece, titled ‘When Little is Said and Feminism is Done? Simon Stephens, the Critical Blogosphere and Modern Misogyny’, focuses on Stephens’ Three Kingdoms – a piece that had its world premiere at Teater NO99 in Tallinn, Estonia, in September 2011, before moving to the Munich Kammerspiele in Germany in October, and then on to the Lyric Hammersmith in London in May the following year. This was a piece born in Europe, and bred in the European Union by collaborators from the UK (Stephens), Germany (Nübling), and Estonia (Ene-Liis Semper, the set and costume designer). Poll draws together several critical responses to Nübling’s production of the play from the blogosphere, alongside the current print issue of Contemporary Theatre Review, which, among other things, frame the play as ‘a portrait of contemporary Europe’, in Diana Damian’s terms, and as ‘an allegory to how Europe has been fetishized in the imagination of British playwrights’, as Marilena Zaroulia puts it.6 However, Poll’s Intervention takes as its main theme the controversial representation of women in the production, and what she identifies as ‘a significant absence at the virtual table: the feminist voice’. Poll’s Intervention, alongside Sophie Nield’s contribution to this issue’s Backpages, makes for important reading in the present moment – not least at a time when feminism is still being vilified or treated with suspicion by those in or fighting for power, including women.7 Where Nield’s primary target lands squarely on modes of representation in Three Kingdoms, Poll focuses on how critical dialogue about Stephens’ plays in production is compromised by an all-too-frequent occlusion of feminist criticism, arguing that equality is still very much an issue in need of resolution, and that theatre and its critical respondents ought to be more wary of its complicity in modern misogyny.
Gaye Taylor Upchurch also tackles the issue of modern misogyny, but from the perspective of a theatre-maker reflecting on her direction of Stephens’ Harper Regan at the Atlantic Theatre in New York City in 2012. Looking back on the production, which teased out the feminism of its eponymous protagonist who comes to realise her own power on a Homer-esque Odyssey, Upchurch found herself especially struck by the public backlash against this realisation, asking: ‘why is a woman with agency still such a scary notion?’ Upchurch also offers insight into the design and direction of the production, particularly its connection to Anne Carson’s Grief Lessons and ancient Greek tragedy, which influenced the production’s dramaturgy and ultimately informs her incredulity that the sexual empowerment of women and the realisation of autonomy is still managing to irk audiences.
The final Intervention featured in this issue is by Walter Meierjohann, the artistic director of Manchester’s Home and of Stephens’ The Funfair. Meierjohann reflects on Stephens’ approach to adaptation in ways that resonate with this introduction’s broader framing: he comments on the piece’s ‘timeless feeling’, allowing the past and the present to ‘clash or enhance one another’ in ways that enabled him, as a director, to talk about the contemporary moment without simply holding a mirror up to society. Importantly, Meierjohann emphasises the importance of a ‘mood of anxiety and xenophobia’ that has been on the rise in the UK at least since the global financial crash in 2008, epitomised most strikingly in the various successes of UKIP both in national and European government.
Perhaps something of this mood informs Jacqueline Bolton’s insightful commentary on Stephens’ approach to characterisation within plays populated by those who ‘demonstrate an ongoing improvization of moral, societal and familial values, an improvization engendered by the twentieth century’s erosion of such ideological certainties as organized religion, elected government and the nuclear family’.8 Despite threats to its survival, the EU carries its own kind of ideological certainties, from the protection of workers’ and human rights, to the openness of markets. For Britain, such certainties are now appended with question marks; they are at risk of being eroded. As I write this, UK politicians are in the midst of their own improvisation as they scramble to find a solution to the issue of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which affirms the right of countries to leave the EU, with terms remaining vague until the Union has negotiated and concluded an agreement with the State.9 At the same time, amidst all this uncertainty, ideology has gained traction in other guises, circling around (evidently) persuasive right-wing narratives, and shoring up parochial and/or nationalist spirit.
This kind of complexity – rife with contradictions and conflict – is at the heart of Stephens’ work, which often comes across as disturbing, even bleak; but it is also heartening to find him reiterating his belief in the ‘innately optimistic’ and collaborative processes of writing for theatre.10 All of the contributors to this issue capture something of this complexity, not least in their juxtaposition, shuttling between the need for focused and sustained critique (at times targeted at Stephens), and a much-needed spirit of optimism fuelled by feminist and socialist sensibilities. It is this complexity, and the effort to make sense of the manifestly messy, the tangled, and the contradictory, that makes Stephens such an important writer for the present moment.
– Adam Alston
- Simon Stephens, ‘Deutsch courage: why German theatre dares – and wins’, The Guardian, 9 May 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2012/may/09/german-theatre-dares-three-kingdoms [accessed 11 July 2016]. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Simon Stephens, ‘Simon Stephens on “Funfair”, the general election, and putting poverty on the stage’, Independent, 12 May 2015, <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/simon-stephens-on-funfair-the-general-election-and-putting-poverty-on-the-stage-10245400.html> [accessed 12 July 2016]. ↩
- Matt Trueman, ‘Matt Trueman: Why theatre didn’t tackle Brexit’, What’s On Stage, 27 June 2016, http://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/news/matt-trueman-theatre-didnt-tackle-brexit_41155.html [accessed 12 July 2016]. ↩
- Simon Stephens, ‘Deutsch courage: why German theatre dares – and wins’, The Guardian, 9 May 2012, <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2012/may/09/german-theatre-dares-three-kingdoms> [accessed 12 July 2016]. ↩
- Diana Damian, Ella Parry-Davies, Natasha Tripney and B.B. Yates, ‘Hard Core Critical Girl on Girl Action’, Exeunt, 21 May 2012, <http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/critical-girl-on-girl-action/> [accessed 12 July 2016]; Marilena Zaroulia, ‘The Invisible Other in Excess: (Dis)placing Europe in Simon Stephens’ Three Kingdoms’, Contemporary Theatre Review, pp. 357-364. ↩
- Ridley, Louise, ‘Andrea Leadsom Says She’s Not A Feminist Because The Word Has Been “Used To Abuse Men”’, Huffington Post, 9 July 2016, <http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/andrea-leadson-feminist-feminism-times_uk_5780f9eee4b074297db31b28> [accessed 12 July 2016]. ↩
- Jacqueline Bolton, ‘Simon Stephens’, in Modern British Playwrighting, ed. by Dan Rebellato (London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. 101-24: pp. 103-04. ↩
- The Lisbon Treaty, ‘Article 50’, 2008-2013, <http://www.lisbon-treaty.org/wcm/the-lisbon-treaty/treaty-on-European-union-and-comments/title-6-final-provisions/137-article-50.html> [accessed 13 July 2016]. ↩
- Dominic Cavendish, ‘Pornography: the most shocking play of the Edinburgh Festival?’, The Telegraph, 31 July 2008, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/3557508/Pornography-the-most-shocking-play-of-the-Edinburgh-Festival.html> [accessed 13 July 2016]; see also Simone Finney, ‘Common Distractions: An Interview with Simon Stephens’, Almeida Theatre, 6 May 2015 <http://www.almeida.co.uk/common-disruptions-an-interview-with-simon-stephens> [accessed 13 July 2016]; Anon, ‘Interview: Simon Stephens talks on his new play Three Kingdoms’, Evening Standard, 3 May 2012, <http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/theatre/interview-simon-stephens-talks-on-his-new-play-three-kingdoms-7707198.html#gallery> [accessed 13 July 2016]. ↩