Thursday 18 January 2018

Stage: Novel approach is first for playwright's family

Simon Stephens
Simon Stephens
Mark Haddon

Maggie Armstrong

It's the Obama moment. Simon Stephens is sipping his first ever Guinness in Dublin. "Just give me 30 seconds," he asks, closes his eyes and glugs back a mouthful of porter. "That's gorgeous."

Britain's fastest rising playwright is in town to promote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, his adaptation of the page-turner by Mark Haddon for anyone aged 11 plus (who can handle some strong language.) The canine murder mystery about a boy called Christopher brought autism into popular consciousness when it came out in 2003.

The play, a National Theatre of Great Britain production, premiered in 2012 (and has slid into the Dublin Theatre Festival, which is really there to premier new work.) Nevertheless, Curious Incident has won multiple Tony awards and we're looking forward to this - particularly so for those who enjoyed Punk Rock at the Lyric in Belfast and Sea Wall at the Project in Dublin, both by Simon Stephens.

Not your expected mascot for a children's play, Simon is 44, tall, hulking, suntanned, with enormous eyes surrounded by shadows. He sweeps his blonde quiff to one side, clicks his fingers loudly, smacks his hand on the table occasionally, and moves between what can only be described as soliloquy, and wicked laughter. His musings aloud roam from Jeremy Corbyn ("Would I rather have a disappointing Labour prime minister or an admirable Labour opposition leader?") to cider ("I could never take to cider, I could never take to cider, but I ought to") to long meditations on writers. "I was a socialist at the time of Thatcher. I've always taken solace in the position of the outsider, from Morrissey to James Joyce. The weirdo in the corner saying things no one else was saying. Sometimes a writer has to have the tenacity to take that position, the marginal position of the mocked."

The son of a Stockport salesman, with an Irish protestant grandmother from Belfast, Simon emerged in the 1990s from a post-punk music band to write plays that are internationally performed - some 30 plays. This year, four new plays will be staged around the world. He appears to be a backstage superhero. He's not: "I've got a f***ing amazing wife who works tremendously hard to create an environment in which I can write. She manages my working career and raises our children with extraordinary grace. Couldn't have done any of it without her, none of it."

Her name is Polly. He writes for his family, he says. And Curious Incident was for his three children. It had bothered him that his children could never see his plays.

"My plays are so filthy, some of them. Sexually explicit, violent, bleak, philosophically complicated." When his oldest was three he would come and sit on Simon's lap, "and see some of the vile swear words I was typing out". Then Mark Haddon asked him if he would like to adapt his novel. "I thought I could write the play and my children could come and see what their dad does at work."

This man is wasted over a computer, you'd think. Until he starts explaining his passion. "Theatre, it's an extraordinary, immensely volatile, unpredictable, exciting thing. When you go to the theatre you're agreeing to share an experience with people you've never met before, and you need to honour that. It feels radical to be in the same space with strangers engaging."

An "ardent" Manchester United fan, he compares theatre to sport. Only he would like people to shout at the theatre more. The National Theatre has put on "relaxed performances" of Curious Incident with people on the autistic spectrum in mind. "They're my favourite audiences I've ever played to, they're so alive, they shout out." He continues, "Pantomime, people shout out. It's most people's introduction to theatre, a forum where unapologetically we play with the present-tense-ness of the thing. The actors in Curious Incident really cherish and love an audience that's emotionally awake." Take this as an invitation to shout at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

Pint sunk, quiff arranged, PR people beckoning, he ducks out onto Grafton Street to join the fray.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, adapted from the book by Mark Haddon,  plays October 6-10 at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre

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