Simon Stephens (b 1971) is the most prolific British playwright of his generation. Born and brought up in Stockport, he began writing as a student in York University and had produced seven plays before his Bluebird was produced at the Royal Court in 1998. In due course along came angry, searching, passionate statements about society and belonging with punchy titles like Motortown (2006), Pornography (2007) and Punk Rock (2009) (pictured below right).
The productivity has not let up, least of all in a summer which sees three new plays from his pen: Morning at the Traverse in Edinburgh, a fresh version of Ibsenís A Dollís House for the Young Vic and, for the National Theatre, an adaptation of Mark Haddonís much-loved bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, about an autistic teenager trying to make sense of a world in which his parentsí marriage has ended. It will be directed by Marianne Elliott, who has previously staged his plays Port (2002) and Harper Regan (2007).
Collaborations with a living novelist and a dead playwright are the latest feints by a writer who seems committed to reinvention. He wrote Three Kingdoms (2011) for a company of actors from three different countries. He wrote A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky (2010) with David Eldridge and Robert Holman. For the Brighton Festival in 2010 he collaborated on a musical with the singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel called Marine Parade. Thereís a lot of Simon Stephens to go round. Unlike some writers, he is also an intoxicating talker. He talks to theartsdesk.
JASPER REES: When did you first get hooked up with this idea?
SIMON STEPHENS: I read the book in 2005 as research for Motortown. I knew I wanted to write a character who was somewhere on the Aspergers/autism spectrum. And then in 2007 Mark was on attachment in the National Studio when I was resident dramatist at the National Theatre. We would go and talk about music and grumble and just became mates. He came to see a few plays and I read his stuff and we chatted about the difference between prose writing and dramatic writing. It was a very fruitful friendship. It would be the end of 2008, I think, I got an email from him saying, ďWould you consider adapting A Curious Incident for the stage?Ē Tremendously flattering that he could trust me with a book that had clearly become something of a phenomenon. I was tremendously nervous about it because it had a huge amount of baggage.
What was the attraction of doing your first adaptation?
As I get older, the big spectre that sits in my career anxiety is the extent to which playwrights tend to dry up the older they get. You start your career with a burst of energy and a desire to write and write and write in order to make sense of those things that youíve experienced through your life and as you get older thereís less to write about because youíve written all those plays born out of your youth. So in the same way as writing versions of plays is stimulating, I find the dramaturgical challenge of writing an adaptation really exciting, so I told him Iíd have a go at it as long as it wasnít burdened by a commission. I just wanted to be able to do it as an exercise in dramaturgy or an exercise in writing just to see if I could have a go at it and I had a go at it and I fell in love with it. And I found ways into it I think because I wasnít trying to, and I was unpressured by the burden of a commitment to anybody other than Mark and Iíd committed to it on the understanding that I could ring him up at any moment and say, ďMate, I canít do it.Ē And he was very supportive about that. I felt quite kind of free.
Why is the book so well loved?
Iím genuinely thinking about this for the first time. Thereís obvious things that you can talk about. Obviously itís funny, obviously itís warm, obviously itís moving. Obviously itís built around a central character who sees the world with a profound innocence and clarity that we hanker after. It was published in the early years of the last decade. I just wonder if thereís something in the idea that if thereís any time when we were searching for the comfort of childhood, it was in the early years of the last decade when the adult world seemed to be going completely to shit.