Simon Stephens

Feature | The Curious Mr Simon Stephens

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For anyone who has had the good fortune to read Simon Stephens’ recently published Working Diary, or see any one of his (now 30+) plays, you find yourself in the company of a writer who is restless, relentless and engrossed in humans: in love, loss, dread, joy, peril and pursuit. In humans who are out of balance. Disordered. To the conflicting elements exposed.

In the early plays it is mostly young people’s lives that are in turmoil. In his breakthrough Motortown, it is a recently returned veteran, Danny, who is utterly unsettled and moves, with increasing menace, through London and its surrounds – ‘I don’t blame the war. The war was all right. I miss it. It’s just you come back to this’ – the landscape a disturbed nervous system. Living with instability and flux, and in a state of constant, surprising oscillation describe all of his plays, and in them we lose the normal feeling of ‘wellness’, of equilibrium – a disturbing sensation that offers us a chance to enter into new perceptions of our world.

And Stephens is fascinated by ways of seeing, indeed by everything: topography, history, aging vascular systems, flora and fauna, rock ‘n’ roll, the weather, transformation, swearing, and much more besides, always in great detail. He is also warm, diffident, a very close listener and has more than once described his writing as ‘carving plays out of love’.

So when he was offered – by author Mark Haddon no less, after them having bonded months earlier over instant coffee at the National Theatre Studio working on unrelated new plays – the chance to adapt this wonder of a book for the stage, Stephens brought all of his skills, his gift for
language and dialect, his research and inquisitiveness, his relentless pursuit of truth, of emotion, of drama, to the tale of a boy whose life has tipped well out of balance.

But could this much-loved novel ever really be adapted to the stage?

According to Stephens it was Mark Haddon – a playwright as well as a novelist – who figured that the book was unadaptable.

‘He always told me it was. Which made me want to adapt it more. I think he assumed that a book based on the interior world of a boy who never interacted with strangers could never be active and so never dramatic. How do you dramatise that remarkable inner voice without just having him speak it?’ Much harder in fact was getting from Swindon to Willesden on stage.

For Stephens the most surprising thing was how active Haddon’s direct speech was. His characters speak out loud when they’re trying to effect change in another so, as Stephens remarked, ‘[Haddon] thinks with the muscle of a dramatist’. This meant that the task of adaptation was, in fact
surprisingly easy’.

In committing to the adaptation Stephens set himself a rule – as he does with all his adaptations – ‘I am linguistically very loyal,’ he says. ‘For me the exercise was as technical as I could make it. By thinking technically and giving myself a rule of loyalty to Mark’s novel then the
inventiveness became entirely formal and I think the release of that allowed me to be quite formally playful. By not worrying about character or dialogue or story I was encouraged to think of form. The rule released the vitality.’

So of course adaptation was not only possible, but has created a show in which the 80 mile journey from Swindon to Willesden by a young man and his rat to solve a probable canicide has thrilled audiences the world over.

This once small play – it opened in the National Theatre’s 400-seat Cottesloe Theatre – has played seasons in the West End (the Apollo and the Gielgud) and on Broadway (the Ethel Barrymore) as well as in Canada and the Netherlands. By now it has been seen by over two and half million people.

In Stephens’ opinion, is it Marianne Elliott’s spectacular production, the acting wizardry or something more fundamental about the story which is the secret to the show’s worldwide appeal?

‘I think one of the reasons people love Christopher is because they envy his lack of empathy. Sometimes when I am burdened by empathy I wish I could think like him. He also sees with remarkable clarity the oddities that we normalise. When I see those oddities too I feel like I am seeing the world like him and that makes me very happy.’

Simon Stephens spoke to MTC Literary Director Chris Mead in October 2017.

This feature also appears in the production programme, which can be downloaded for free here.

The National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time plays at Arts Centre Melbourne until 25 February 2018.

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