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“Theatre is to make people shake and think” - An Interview with Nuclear War Playwright Simon Stephens
Image Credit: Chloe Lamford

“Theatre is to make people shake and think” - An Interview with Nuclear War Playwright Simon Stephens

22 April 2017 Natasha Sutton-Williams

Playwright Simon Stephens has written Nuclear War, an experimental new play for the Royal Court. Director Imogen Knight and her cast have interpreted Stephen’s words through a choreographic lens to create a highly visual, physical piece of theatre. London Calling met up with Stephens to find out more.

London Calling: At a time when nuclear war is suddenly a very real threat, what is this play saying about the destruction of the world?
 
Simon Stephens: Nuclear War is a piece I wrote in 2014 when the notion of nuclear war was a strange combination of nostalgic memory of paranoia from my childhood and a poetic possibility, not a feasible political tactic. The play has nothing to do with geopolitics, international relationships, machismo ball-swinging or public displays of phallic symbols in the streets of a capital city. In that sense it’s the least fortunate title for this play. At any other moment in the last fifteen years of political history it would have been much less problematic but suddenly it's like, ‘Man! It’s a fucking metaphor!’
 
LC: So what is the play about?
 
SS: Imogen has described the piece as nuclear war playing out inside the protagonist. I like that reading because warfare is also existential. It’s important to remember that wars are declared by individuals, and individuals are dealing with their own terrors of mortality.
 
For me the piece is an interrogation of the existential consequences of the second law of thermodynamics. The notion that we live in time and that time moves forward. That there is erosion, and entropy rises. A nuclear blast is just an extreme acceleration of the natural forces of entropy. What interests me is how humans make sense of the idea that we live in time. That we are aware we have a future that is leading towards our death. How do we make sense of that? Our consciousness of consciousness has led humanity to the most remarkable and beautiful creations as we try to make sense of how entropy impacts on our lives. It has created the permanence of family, art, and architecture. It also underpins our most brutal gestures: individual, psychological violence, political aggression and nuclear war.
 
LC: What is the role of the playwright in politics today?
 
SS: Before I was a playwright I was a teacher in Dagenham teaching thirteen and fourteen year olds literally how to read, write, spell, engage with literature, engage with metaphor, fucking think. That was directly and unarguably a political gesture I was happy I was making. I changed careers and started writing plays. In comparison, I was hanging out with great artists in nice theatre bars, a political gesture that is more questionable. It was then that playwright Edward Bond talked to me about the fundamental political importance of drama.
 
Edward told me it is not a coincidence that the culture that first gave us democracy and law also gave us drama on a public scale. The Ancient Greeks understood that politics, democracy and legal systems are public structures predicated on certainty, but to be human is to be uncertain and contradictory. You can’t contradict yourself in politics. Sadly you can’t vote, change your mind, then vote for something else. Our current prime minister is constantly telling us this. The Greeks realised they needed the public forum of the theatre to interrogate the uncertain and contradictory nature of humanity. It’s the purest study of cause and consequence. In that space we can better equip ourselves to live with more humanness and to vote with more thought.
 
LC: You wrote Nuclear War with the intention that ‘all of these words may be spoken by the performers but none of them need to be.’ Some contemporary playwrights say that allowing a director and company of actors to interpret a play text of their own volition removes the responsibility of the playwright. What is your response to that?
 
SS: Some people who I really like and respect have strident notions of what the responsibilities of a playwright are. There is a constant battle between David Hare and myself. He’s always telling me I’m being irresponsible and weakening the power of the playwright. With love and respect I disagree with him. Even in the most conventional productions of my plays, a director is initiating and imagining material that the play doesn’t describe. They’re intervening; they’re not following the recipe without bringing ingredients of their own. It’s not blind, dutiful, slavish commitment to the text. They’re bringing themselves, not just staging my fucking play. What’s astonishing is how loyal Imogen the director has been to the text of Nuclear War. She may not have included every word but every word has informed her thinking.
 
LC: What keeps you writing?
 
SS: I’m as inspired by writers in their twenties as I am by writers in their seventies. There is no hierarchy of age. Two of my favourite plays last year were X and Escaped Alone. Alistair McDowall wrote X when he was twenty-six. Caryl Churchill wrote Escaped Alone when she was seventy-seven. We stand on each other’s shoulders. It’s the most important thing I’ve learnt.
 
Nuclear War is on at the Royal Court Theatre from 19 April to 6 May. For more information and tickets, please see the website.

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