Wasteland As Morning—Simon Stephens’s latest portrait of atomised youth—premieres at the Fringe, the playwright talks to Matt Trueman about his terrible teens.
ven by his own prolific standards, Simon Stephens has had a remarkably busy year. Morning, which plays at the Traverse for the first three weeks of this year’s Fringe, is his fifth new play to premiere this year. His stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time only opened at the National Theatre at the end of July and looks set to be one of this summer’s blockbusters. Both plays centre on teenage protagonists. Haddon’s novel follows Christopher, a 15-year-old with an autism spectrum disorder, who is incapable of lying. Morning centres on Stephanie, a sixth-former desperately trying to conceal a secret that could ruin her life. In fact, almost half of Stephens’ plays have major teenage characters, and no-one captures the hybrid nature of adolescence quite like he does. His teens haven’t the melodramatic gloss of Skins characters, nor the Neanderthal surliness of Kevin and Perry. One sodomises a schoolmate with a beer bottle. Another hides under his sister’s bed and occasionally tries on her lipstick. One takes a gun into school and shoots two of his peers. Half childish and half adult, they are capable of searing cruelty, aching vulnerability and breathtaking insight. Many of them are startlingly direct, unconditioned enough to tell it how it is. “[Teenagers] have that capacity to look you in the eye and just tell you the truth,” explains the 41-year-old playwright. “My last few plays have all been concerned with the possibility of telling the truth.” Fringe-goers might remember Stephens from Pornography, a collection of stories around the 7/7 London bombings, or Sea Wall, devastatingly performed by Andrew Scott (now Sherlock’s Moriarty). However, his first critical hit came in 2001 with Herons, a tale of inherited teenage rivalries, and three years ago, he transposed a Columbine-style massacre to a Stockport secondary in Punk Rock (there’s a new production at this year’s Fringe starring Skins actor Will Merrick).
There are remnants of teenage spirit in Stephens: a mix of puckish brio and punkish insouciance. It’s hard to imagine him working as a secondary school teacher throughout his 20s, a role he quit in 2000 to take up a year’s residency at the Royal Court. The experience directly informed Herons and still looms large. “The representation of teenage characters sat so at odds with how I’d experienced them that I wanted to redress it.” Stephens has a scratchy, caffeinated energy and clearly relishes picking apart his own work, but that’s more about selfunderstanding than simple arrogance. “You become aware of recurrences in your work and a lot of my central characters are specifically 17-year-olds. They’re on that strange cusp of legality and adulthood, where in some ways you feel tremendously mature and in others a complete novice. “Part of me thinks the reason I’m drawn to that figure is that we’re just starting to lose our innocence, politically, economically, ecologically. We’re just starting to realise the consequences.” Many playwrights cater to parents, presenting teenagers as stroppy teenage handfuls. Television reflects teenagers at themselves, as they want to be seen or as is deemed good for them. For Stephens, however, it’s something different. He cites Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind’s 1891 tragedy of repressed pubescents: “Wedekind, a middle-aged man, was writing about kids because he felt it vitally important that middle-aged audiences saw that.” The play was still banned in Britain more than 70 years later. Morning grew out of workshops with teenagers from the Lyric Hammersmith’s Young Company—who will perform the premiere production—and the Junges Theater Basel. Stephens and the Lyric’s artistic director Sean Holmes drew inspiration from Europe where theatres consider their youth work “as integral a part of theatre programming as anything else… rather than ghettoising it or parcelling it off to the outreach or education departments.”
During these workshops, one participant brought in a news report about a Welsh teenager who, last year, killed his girlfriend to win a jovial bet with his best friend. Having done so, he sent a text message: “Don’t say anything but you may just owe me that breakfast.” “That terrifying dislocation from the action and its moral fallout fascinated me,” says Stephens. It’s not hard to see why. It has his idiosyncratic combination of blasé banality and electric brutality. In Morning, Stephanie lures her boyfriend into the woods with her best friend Cat. A kiss becomes a bite becomes a kidnap becomes a savage and unflinching killing. It’s a horrifying moment, handled with the playwright’s characteristic frankness, and calls to mind the killing of James Bulger. “Stephanie is exhilarated and terrified by the fact that you can do anything. To her horror she realises that actions have consequences and the play’s about her attempting to make sense of that fact… It’s actually quite a moral play, possibly the most moral I’ve written.” f Morning @ Traverse Theatre 1–19 Aug, not 2, 3, 6, 13, £13 – £20
edinburgh festival preview guide 2012 fest 57
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