Things That Always Tend to Happen in Simon Stephens’ Plays

Louise LePage, with Billy Smart, Dan Rebellato, Chris Megson and Aleks Sierz

Billy Smart
‘Things That Always Tend to Happen in Simon Stephens’ Plays’

On my way to Islington to see Carmen Disruption the other day, the thought struck me that this would be the eleventh play by Simon Stephens that I’d seen over the last 15 years, and that few dramatists can withstand that degree of continued viewing without their style getting overfamiliar. Leaving the Almeida three hours later with this tally in mind I reflected that ‘I don’t actually need to see another play by him again’…. You could draw up a bingo card of things that always tend to happen in Simon Stephens plays:

  • Hyper-detailed stream of consciousness internal monologue speeches, written at a high velocity. These can become problematic when occasional details snag against your imagination as being a bit wrong. I first noticed this watching T5 and thinking that ‘a mobile phone wouldn’t fall onto a railway track like that’, then ‘a sixteen year-old wouldn’t be able to apply for a driving license’, and afterwards tending not to believe what was being said. This technique can get tiresome when all the speakers start to sound like the same character – having the same sort of reflections – only slightly differentiated from each other by a few tics of speech.
  • Internet pornography will always leak into every play (I think that the only exception is Sea Wall). When this started it often worked as an arresting metaphor for some dehumanising impulse, but I get the feeling now that Stephens hits an impasse in his frenzied writing, spends half an hour watching sexxxyclipz.com, and then writes a description of what he’s just seen.
  • A dead or lost child.
  • A character will end up murdering someone, an action that doesn’t catch up with them afterwards.
  • Some songs/ a playlist. What I call ‘listen to these records that I like’ drama. This strikes me as a variation on the Internet porn riff, where the playwright listens to a record and then describes it to the audience.
  • A person from Stockport.
  • Anonymous hotel rooms and cityscapes in which protagonists will feel blank inside, often with a road trip thrown in for good measure.

There’s (possibly) a full house of these ingredients in Carmen Disruption.

I remembered seeing Motortown in 2006 at the Royal Court. Even if you hated it, it was manifestly a play about something – Abu Ghraib – and was vitally important to the time it was written (as with Pornography and 7/7). Watching Birdland in 2014, I felt tired by how unnecessary the play felt: more a theatrical exercise held up by the skills of performers and director, rather than a play that needed to be written in the first place. I’m not even sure that rock stars in the position of Paul’s in Birdland even exist anymore. They did fifteen years ago….

Simon Stephens’ plays have always been ragged, spontaneous-feeling things: characters suddenly burst into cosmic epiphanies, violence erupts, scenes and characters come out of nowhere. Although this was not always dramatically successful, it did hold great virtues of serendipity and surprise, making a Stephens play an insightful and thrilling thing to see. Regrettably, what once was fresh can become well-worn with repetition. The situation has perhaps not been helped by Stephens’ willingness, having become a hero in Germany, to see his plays as scores for directors to interpret, making the plays increasingly repetitive and thin things in their own right, reliant on the original interpretations of others.

In essence, my sense of dissatisfaction stems from how Stephens’ plays don’t speak to me about life itself anymore, but only about perception and theatre. It’s been a while since I saw one of his plays when I cared about the people who he creates, or the situations that they find themselves in. This may, of course, be because I don’t feel at ease with twenty-first-century life, and Stephens has an acute understanding of how the world is now.

Louise LePage

In April 2015, my friend Dr. Billy Smart and I went to see Simon Stephens’ play, Carmen Disruption, at the Almeida Theatre. Billy’s field of research is Television Studies, but his knowledge of British theatre, including the work of Simon Stephens, is significant (at the time, he had seen eleven of Stephens’ plays). After the performance, Billy offered some insightful remarks on what he’d seen, which I found both coruscating and provocative. I did not agree with everything he said, but I could not stop thinking about his observations. I asked him to write them down.

The film, Things That Always Tend to Happen in Simon Stephens’ Plays, is a response to Billy’s reflections: in particular, his reflections on Carmen Disruption. Four theatre commentators – Dan Rebellato, Chris Megson, Aleks Sierz, and myself, Louise LePage – debate the questions that sit at the heart of Billy’s piece: of what value is Stephens’ recent drama, and what is its relationship with the twenty-first century?

Carmen Disruption is inspired by Bizet’s Carmen. Stephens’ version, haunted by the original opera, focuses on the contemporary experiences of five isolated, narcissistic individuals connected by a European city and a death. The Singer has arrived to perform yet another Carmen; Carmen, meanwhile, is a rent-boy; Don José is a taxi-driver-mother pining for her lost son; Micaëla is a depressed student struggling to come to terms with the end of a relationship; and Escamillo is a corrupt businessman.

Stephens’ play was first performed at the Deutsche Schauspielhaus, Hamburg, on 15 March 2014, in a production directed by Stephens’ long-time collaborator, Sebastian Nübling. Stephens reports that it was a provocation offered by Nübling that prompted his writing of the play: ‘[Sebastian] had a hunch that there may be a story worth telling in the life of an opera singer, and that this story might refract or reflect Bizet’s themes through a contemporary lens’.1

The play’s UK premiere was at the Almeida Theatre, London, on 10 April 2015, directed by Michael Longhurst. It is this production of Carmen Disruption that is under discussion by Billy and his four respondents.

 

Index to the film

Billy’s list of things that always happen in Simon Stephens’ plays, 01:50, 03:29, 04:12, 04:59

Stream of consciousness internal monologue speeches, 07:13

A character will end up murdering someone, an action that doesn’t catch up with them afterwards, 18:36

Internet pornography, 13:59

Anonymous hotel rooms and cityscapes

Globalization, 17:12

Place, 09:31

Stephens’ plays: no longer thrilling, spontaneous things about life (but rather about perception and theatre), 02:19, 02:37, 05:49, 10:54, 20:46

Carmen Disruption, 06:06

Carmen, 21:38

Contemporary life, 10:54

Consumerism and brands, 12:15

The Helmut Lang dress, 13:29

Character, self, and the individual

Contemporary, posthuman, 10:54, 14:58, 16:16, 18:04, 22:00, 23:37

Personas, 06:58, 08:57, 10:03

Memory, 15:08, 16:07

Provocation, 06:06

 

Contributor biographies

Louise LePage is Lecturer in Theatre at the University of Reading. Her research interests cover twenty-first century drama and posthumanist theatre, including performing robots (her website is at www.robottheatre.co.uk). She is co-editor of Twenty-First Century Drama: What Happens Now (2016), and has published on dramatic character, the posthuman and theatre, Sarah Kane, and Katie Mitchell. Louise is currently writing a monograph for Palgrave Macmillan: Theatre and the Posthuman: A Subject of Character.

Billy Smart works as Research Officer on the ‘Forgotten British Television Drama, 1946-82’ project at Royal Holloway, and previously worked on ‘Spaces of Television: Production, Site and Style’ at the University of Reading. Work includes studies of lesbianism in early British TV drama, 1970s Outside Broadcast Shakespeare productions, the BBC Audience Research Unit, the changing form of soap opera, and how theatrical conventions of Ibsen, Chekhov, Brecht and J.B. Priestley were altered by television adaptation.

Dan Rebellato is a playwright and Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway, and in 2016 visiting professor at the Sorbonne, Paris.

Chris Megson is Reader in Drama and Theatre at Royal Holloway. His research and teaching focus on contemporary playwriting, global theatres of the real, and post-war British theatre. Publications include Decades of Modern British Playwriting: the 1970s (Methuen Drama, 2012), Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past and Present (co-edited with Alison Forsyth; Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and numerous articles and essays including in Twenty-First Century Drama: What Happens Now (eds. Siân Adiseshiah and Louise LePage; Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Aleks Sierz FRSA is a Research Associate at Rose Bruford College, and author of the seminal study of 1990s new writing, In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today (2001), as well as other books such as The Theatre of Martin Crimp (second edition 2013) and Rewriting the Nation: British Theatre Today (2011). His latest is The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre: The First Four Hundred Years (2015), co-authored with Lia Ghilardi. He also works as a critic, lecturer, broadcaster and journalist.

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Notes:

  1. Simon Stephens, ‘How Bizet’s Carmen Became a Male Prostitute’, The Guardian, 13 April 2015, <https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/apr/13/carmen-as-male-prostitute-simon-stephens-carmen-disruption> [accessed 15 September 2015].

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