Simon Stephens - Stockport's renowned playwright looking forward to National Theatre production
A renowned playwright from Stockport whose work gains plaudits worldwide is looking forward to his work being staged at London's South Bank. WORDS BY STEPHEN GIBBS<br/>PHOTOGRAPHY BY SIMON KANE
There is one particularly strident and successful corner of Britain’s theatrical landscape which will be forever Stockport.
Universally acclaimed as ‘the most prolific English playwright of his generation’ not to mention one of the most important, Simon Stephens admits that he owes much of his career to his home town. As he wryly suggests just minutes before flying to New York, for his second premiere of the week: ‘You can take the boy out of Stockport, but you can’t take Stockport out of the boy’.
Now, his own portrait of dysfunctional, late-1980s Stopfordian youth is being revived by the National Theatre. Port opens at London’s South Bank on January 22nd, 10 years after its acclaimed, award-winning debut at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.
‘It came completely out of the blue,’ he confesses of this new production, which falls amidst a schedule he describes as ‘frantic’ and ‘bonkers’. ‘I’m deeply proud of it. It’s a play which means a huge amount to me. It was the first time that I wrote about my home town, and it was received with such energy and affection by people.’
The story of Rachel Keats, an 11 year-old growing up with a broken family in a town she doesn’t like, Port is typical of Stephens’ rich, visceral and overtly political work, which also includes Punk Rock, his story of life in a Stockport grammar school.
‘The timespan of the play was defined by the last Tory government. It’s a play about growing up under the shadow of Margaret Thatcher, and I wonder if there’s a new timeliness,’ he considers of the similarities between 1988 and 2013. ‘It’s also a love story and it’s a story about somebody leaving home, trying to make senseof their life. I think people all over the world have recognised themselves in Rachel.
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‘It’s not a play which is built on a contempt of Stockport, if anything it’s born of a respect and affection for the place. It’s only when you come back that you realise the truth of the place, and maybe Stockport is far more beautiful than I realised when I was growing up.’
Now settled in East London but with a mother, step-father and grandmother who still live in Stockport, Stephens remembers a happy childhood spent playing football on Priestnall field. ‘I’ve got family all over Cheshire, and it was a really happy place. I had a great time, I just wanted to see what a big city was like,’ he says, remembering his fascination with the town centre’s A6 milestone which pointed the way to London.
‘I still recognise the place. Heaton Moor is a lot nicer than I realised when I was living there. And Mile End in many ways is a brilliant school. I was quite a geeky, gawky teenager, so I wasn’t one of the cool kids. But if I’d gone to a grammar school, I don’t think I’d be a playwright now.
“Going to Stockport School gave me a sense of the diversity and extraordinary nature of life. I met people from backgrounds I’d never met people from before, and it affected me politically. I’m tremendously grateful to the place.’
Even though Stephens acknowledges that ‘I don’t think theatre is going to change the world’, political education was crucial in his development, and proves the power of theatre as a force for change, both personal and universal.
‘I think theatre is the most public of all artforms, and in that sense is innately political, even if you’re writing a light-hearted comedy. As a writer, I want in some way for every member of my audience to be affected to the point of a small change in themselves, and I want to take responsibility for how I change them.’
Such lofty ambitions allow little time for respite, and Stephens is only half-joking when he claims that he isn’t planning beyond 2024. After a 2012 which saw him involved in (at the last count) six productions, including his adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Simon has already scheduled a premiere for 2014 alongside ‘a little bit of TV work, a bit of film work’.
That too, however, can be traced back to his upbringing: ‘I have a scepticism of people who don’t put the graft in, and I think I get that from the place where I was raised,’ he concludes. ‘If you’re going to call yourself an artist, or a writer, you’d better do the work, otherwise you’re just pretentious. And there’s very little time given to pretentiousness in Stockport.It’s really fundamental to everything I’ve ever done.’
Port, by Simon Stephens, is on at the Lyttelton Theatre at London’s National Theatre from January 22nd-31st. For details visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk