Simon Stephens: Interview

Simon Stephens latest play, the Iraq War-inspired 'Motortown', was written in four tuumultuous days last July. He talks creative frenzies and controversies with Time Out.

  • Playwright Simon Stephens wrote ‘Motortown’ in four days. He started on July 6, the day London won the 2012 Olympic bid, and the day before the London bombings. It was in this extraordinary climate – a backdrop of sirens that drowned the joy of victory – that ‘Motortown’ was created. ‘When it was announced that London had won the bid, there was such incredulous happiness. I think there is an element of that energy and euphoria in “Motortown”. Sometimes I feel the play was written in the spirit of “Fucking Hell!”,’ laughs Stephens. ‘And if the sense of euphoria from the Olympics permeated the play, then so did the sense of terror from the bomb attack.’

    The play is about Danny, a soldier who was stationed in Basra, who returns to a ‘foreign’ England to find his life in disarray. He faces rejection from an ex-girlfriend and goes on a road trip where he fights a different, more personal kind of battle. ‘This is a play about England at war. It is a play about the fallout of the “war on terror”. It is also a play about the fallout of the war in Iraq,’ Stephens says.

    There are many themes in ‘Motortown’ such as cruelty, escapism and brotherly love, but it is the politics that could give rise to controversy. Stephens realises that ridiculing the anti-war march may create ripples among generally more anti- than pro-war audiences. And he has already provoked an angry email from the Stop the War Coalition with his declaration that ‘Motortown’ was written to destabilise the common instinct to demonise the US and Tony Blair, and to show that there are no longer good and bad guys. Stephens doesn’t mind. He also has reservations about the war, but for him theatre should inculpate – his favourite new word – rather than congratulate the audience.

    Despite this opposition, the play is not explicitly pro-war, nor does it champion one political ideal. Quite the opposite: it throws up myriad ideas about the Iraq situation, which is what Stephens intended. ‘I think that a play that attempts to answer questions becomes necessarily unpolitical. It actually stops being a play. It doesn’t work dramatically or politically.’

    Stephens may avoid dogmatism, but he is opinionated (as well as eloquent) and gives his view on the military. ‘Certainly the starting point for the play was a huge amount of sympathy for Gary Bartlam [Bartlam was convicted of unspecified crimes for his dealings with Iraqi prisoners]. I think it is easy to imagine the military as being hermetically sealed and separate from our culture, to view military atrocities as being something that are not our fault,’ he asserts, ‘but it is a myth. If those boys are violent, chaotic or morally insecure, it’s because they are a product of a violent, chaotic and morally insecure culture. It’s inaccurate to dismiss them as being part of something else.’

    While he did talk to soldiers to inform his play, ‘Motortown’ is mainly the workings of an imaginative and creative mind. So what does a fictional play offer that verbatim theatre can’t? ‘Metaphor is the main thing. The profound truth of that which is made up. For me, verbatim theatre rarely haunts you in the way a fictional story does. The most beautiful plays that I saw last year haunt me because their questions remain unanswered,’ he declares. ‘Verbatim theatre works like watching a documentary where you receive information. You are kind of a voyeur. This allows a distance, whereas good fictional theatre encourages engagement.’

    It is fitting that Stephens, who was a popular resident dramatist at the Royal Court and taught on its Young Writer’s Programme for five years, should open ‘Motortown’ during the theatre’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations. Three of his eight plays – ‘Bluebird’ (1998), ‘Herons’ (2001) and ‘Country Music’ (2004) – also premiered there. And his last play, ‘On the Shores of the Wide World’ at the National Theatre, won him the Olivier Award for Best New Play 2005. ‘Motortown’ is different. In common is its acute observation of damaged people and its offbeat humour but, as Stephens points out, ‘Motortown’ is darker, more satirical and political.

    Stephens’ latest challenge, alongside teaching playwriting to ten-year-olds, is an unconventional musical set in B&Bs around Brighton that will attempt to engage cynical, musical-hating theatre-goers. ‘I think the wrong people have been doing musicals for so long. I am a big fan of Stewart Lee. I know we share an interest in fucking up musicals a little bit.’

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