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There’s no such thing as a famous playwright,” says Simon Stephens, batting away the idea that he might be an example of the genre.
Of course there are famous playwrights – and he, despite his protestations, is representative: his new version of A Doll’s House has just finished in New York, Carmen Disruption is running in Hamburg and his new play, Birdland, is about to open in London. But there’s fame and fame. Because dramatists’ reputations rest on their words, rather than their faces, they can often stroll down the road unmolested. I once saw Arthur Miller walk the length of a London street without a single passer-by twitching a muscle.
The same would not be true of Paul, the character at the heart of Birdland. Paul is a rock star: the sort of guy who packs stadium gigs with screaming fans. He can buy anything, demand anything, do anything. But Paul is beginning to implode. We first meet him in a Moscow hotel insisting on “local” peaches, just for the hell of it. And it gets much worse. So why bother with such a louse?
When I meet Stephens, together with actor Andrew Scott who plays Paul, the playwright tells me that his interest is not in condemning or excusing Paul, but in understanding what is happening to him. The Faustian pact with fame is a familiar story of our times. Stephens’ concern is what that trajectory tells us about who we are and what we value.
“When I’m trying to make a character I look at what somebody wants and what’s stopping them from getting what they want,” he explains. “The things they do in order to overcome those obstacles constitute their personality. But what happens to a human personality, when you remove those obstacles?”
“Paul has 75,000 people screaming at him,” adds Scott. “And then 15 minutes later he goes for dinner and he’s being a little bit loud and everyone says ‘Oh my God, you’re behaving like a rock star and it’s obnoxious.’ For me the play is partly about the cruelty of idolatry.”
Scott has had his own brush with the quirks of fame. After 15 years working in drama, his stunning performance as Moriarty in the recent BBC television remake of the Sherlock Holmes stories won him a Bafta and raised his profile to a new level. He says, candidly, that such success is welcome, but, at 37, he can keep it in perspective. “It would be different, I think, if I were 19 or 20.”
Instant global celebrity is a curious and comparatively new phenomenon. And the desire to “be famous” drives a host of television talent contests and reality shows. So is it a bad thing? “Everybody can self-promote [through social media],” says Scott. “And being recognisable seems to be more desired, just for its own sake, than ever before.”
Stephens suggests that, in an increasingly secular world, “we continue to have a craving for a unifying narrative” and argues that there may be a peculiarly contemporary kind of loneliness behind the urge to be recognised. “As the population increases,” he says, “and as we construct technologies which are built on communicating, paradoxically, people feel a loneliness the like of which they’ve not felt before because they understand their position in a much broader culture. When you realise yourself to be one of 7bn, that’s a very small and lonely figure.”
Belonging and home are recurrent themes in Stephens’ work: many of his plays deal with leaving home, returning home or working out where home is. Birdland takes place on the road – in luxurious hotels, restaurants and dressing rooms. Paul, the archetypal rolling stone, has rolled too far from home to go back. His sense of dislocation, significantly for Stephens, reminds us of the old saying that money can’t buy you happiness.
“If you say there are certain values which are more important than financial values, you’re culturally encouraged to feel a bit immature,” he suggests. “It has become so ingrained into our way of thinking that the only measure of value is cost.”
“And yet,” Scott interjects, “if you measured somebody’s personal wealth in a eulogy at a funeral, if you said, ‘This person had £75,000 in the bank, they had the iPhone 5s’, everybody would be absolutely disgusted. They would say ‘that’s not the person’.”
Stephens cracks up at the outrageousness of the suggestion. He and Scott make an interesting double act. Scott is still, with a quiet air of suppressed mischief, while Stephens brims over with restless energy. There’s a clear sympathy between them: the two first worked together in 2008 on Seawall, an intensely moving stage monologue about grief that has since been filmed.
People often comment, when meeting Stephens, that his cheerful personality contrasts markedly with the darkness in his plays. Likewise Scott brought an apparent insouciance to the performance of Seawall that made it the more harrowing. Scott says they both attempt to “draw out the light” when approaching pain: “the darkness can play itself”.
Stephens has observed that theatre is a good place to confront dark subjects because, as an art form dependent on collaboration and trust, it is essentially positive and founded on empathy. “The action of a lot of my plays has been to unsettle audiences, frighten them, disarm them and confuse them,” he says. “But all those gestures are born out of a real love for audiences.”
Birdland acknowledges the audience: it is sprinkled with tiny reminders that it is a play. But won’t highlighting the audience’s role in sustaining the fiction break the spell? On the contrary, says Stephens, “exposing the mechanics of storytelling allows the metaphor to be more resonant.
“Brecht would use that technique in order to distance people from their own relationship to the world he’s putting on stage,” he adds. “I think I use it in order to make that relationship hotter.”
‘Birdland’, Royal Court Theatre London, April 3 to May 31, royalcourttheatre.com
‘Carmen Disruption’, Schauspielhaus, Hamburg, to May 2, schauspielhaus.de