Interview: Simon Stephens

Simon Stephens Simon Stephens - © Luca Sage
Posted: Mon Jan 16 2012

The playwright explains why he has written a sequel to Alfred Jarry's perverse 1896 classic 'Ubu Roi'.

A couple of months ago, RSC audiences were walking out in droves from Peter Weiss's cult '60s play 'Marat/Sade' - as reimagined by British theatre's permanent enfant terrible Anthony Neilson to include S&M use of a stun gun and in-yer-face gang rape.

It was, essentially, a post-Abu Ghraib revival of the in-yer-face princples of Antonin Artaud's 1920s Theatre of Cruelty, which proved that you can still shock as well as bore a bourgeouis audience in the theatre.

Now Simon Stephens - Neilson's main rival for the title of Britain's most exciting playwright under 45 - has also been digging around the back catalogue of the French avant-garde, where he has unearthed something very weird indeed: Alfred Jarry's proto-surrealist anti-hero Ubu the King, a shambolic gobbling tyrant who has proved to be a strangely enduring figure.

'Jarry initially conceived Ubu at 15 when he was at school, to take the piss out of his teacher,' says Stephens - who taught at a state school in Dagenham before Royal Court hits 'Bluebird' (1998), 'Herons' (2001) and 'Motortown' (2006) propelled him to the top of the talent lists. 'A Freudian analyst would be interested in how anal it is: for a schoolboy today to write so many fart jokes without one sexual gag would be really strange. But the whole play's pretty fucking strange.'

Stephens first came across 'Ubu Roi' at university - and via late-'70s post-punk rock band Pere Ubu, one of many odd footprints Jarry's character has left in the shifting sands of world culture. But it was his friend and collaborator, the German auteur Sebastian Nubling, who asked Stephens to create a sequel to 'Ubu Roi' where Ubu would be put on trial for war crimes.

Jarry's character, with his obscene boasts and carnival relish for murder, certainly fits the bill as a prototype for the great dictators of the last 120 years. 'It seemed appropriate to me,' says Stephens, 'that a modern 40-year-old father of three should write a play about the crimes of humanity that defined the twentieth century in response to a 15-year-old, unconsciously imagining something that hadn't yet happened.'

Stephens, whose elliptical snapshots of contemporary life shock you with their shark fin glimpses of menace beneath the surface, has not written anything as overtly political as 'The Trial of Ubu' before. For research, he watched hours of International Criminal Court online footage and read transcripts from the trials of Charles Taylor, Ceausescu and other despots.

When I ask if he's going to go all David Hare he swiftly - and respectfully - demurs. But turning 40 has, he says, made him aware of a bigger picture: 'Becoming a parent made me more political,' he recalls. ' I started seeing all these kids who were giving me a whole load of shit at school at the time as babies - and seeing the rank injustice of that. But part of me hangs on to irrational energy and feeling. Sebastian Nubling and I are both middle-aged men with kids who work in theatre but wish we were rock stars.'

At its London premiere at Hampstead Theatre (directed by Katie Mitchell) 'The Trial of Ubu' will be preceded by Stephens's abridged version of Jarry's 'Ubu Roi', enacted by puppets. 'My play doesn't make any sense unless you see what Ubu did,' says Stephens. ' In terms of linguistic energy it's a big contrast to go from the “nobsters” and “shitters” and the colourful mess of Jarry's play to a four-page indictment, which is the first thing that happens in “The Trial”.'

In the spirit of Jarry - albeit in a measured tone inspired by the ICC - Stephens's short play does confront the morality of its audience. At times it is austere about what Stephens calls 'the moral consolation of endless trials with no convictions'.

Although he has become a passionate advocate of the ICC, he also points out that, 'Ten years on, nobody's been convicted and the trials are expensive and lengthy. Plus, the majority are Africans on trial in the north of Europe. Are post-colonial powers putting on trial those people who are playing out the fallout of colonialism? And is there a hypocrisy in that? It's a big and important question to ask.'