Simon Stephens: 'It's possibly the craziest year any playwright has ever had'

The prolific, multi award-winning, impossible to pin-down playwright Simon Stephens discusses the reopening of ”Curious Incident”, reuniting with Andrew Scott and why Chekhov is a ‘really big deal’

"All the best things, all the things that are worth doing, are always impossible" - Simon Stephens at the 2013 Olivier Awards
Simon Stephens at the 2013 Olivier Awards
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

"It's a mental year," says Simon Stephens, shaking his head slightly at the prospect of the months ahead. When we speak, the prolific playwright has three productions – Blindsided at the Royal Exchange, Carmen Disruption at Hamburg's Deutsches Schauspielhaus and Birdland at the Royal Court – "daisy chaining with each other", with four more due to open later in the year.

His version of Ibsen's A Doll's House is transferring to Brooklyn, his stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is re-opening in the West End a few months ahead of a new Broadway production, and in the autumn he tackles Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic, in a production directed by Katie Mitchell. It's a busy 12 months by any standards.

"It's not only the craziest year that I've had in my life of crazy years, I think it's possibly the craziest year that any playwright has ever had," Stephens laughs. He is far from complacent about the current level of demand for his work, however; earlier in our conversation he has self-deprecatingly suggested that in a few years' time he will be hanging around in the espresso bar of the National Theatre, begging passing directors to put on his plays. Considering that Curious Incident is currently one of the National's biggest hits, it's a difficult image to entertain.

Any mention of Curious Incident, however, brings with it the spectre of the ceiling collapse at the Apollo Theatre in December, which has brought a temporary halt to the production and moved it down the road to the Gielgud. While Stephens says little about what happened at the Apollo, he does express great enthusiasm for the recent run of free schools performances that the National Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East organised in the East End during the show's enforced sabbatical, suggesting that the gesture was "in the spirit of defiance and optimism of the novel". He has also found it fascinating to see the show without all the sleek trappings of its high-tech production, modestly suggesting that it "kind of works" in this stripped back incarnation.

Curious Incident marks a relatively new turn in Stephens' playwriting output. Starting with a version of Jon Fosse's I Am the Wind in 2011, he has written a number of versions and adaptations in recent years, the latest of which is The Cherry Orchard. It is a practice that he has come to love, partly because of the focus it forces him to place on language. "Normally, when I'm writing my own plays, the linguistic choices that I make come from a blind energy," Stephens explains, contrasting this with the process of adaptation. "When you write a version of a play, every other decision is made for you: narrative, characters, world, setting, action — that's all defined. The only thing you think about is the language, so you think about language in a tremendously precise way, and I find that to be extraordinarily liberating."

The Cherry Orchard, however, has been more gruelling than previous versions; for Stephens, Chekhov is "a really big deal". In facing this challenge, the playwright "took a much more scholarly approach to it", conducting extensive research into Chekhov's life at the time of writing the play and reading as much of his other work as he could. Stephens describes the process of writing a new version of a play as "sitting in another playwright's head for a short time", at the same time admitting that this attempt to occupy another writer's psyche is inevitably doomed. Though, he adds with a smile, "all the best things, all the things that are worth doing, are always impossible".

Andrew Scott in Sea Wall
Andrew Scott in Sea Wall

Rocking with Scott

Before The Cherry Orchard arrives at the Young Vic, Stephens' new play Birdland is opening at the Royal Court, reuniting him with two previous collaborators: director Carrie Cracknell and actor Andrew Scott. The play, which follows a world famous rock star through the last week of an international stadium tour, taps into Stephens' lifelong fascination with rock and roll and his more recent interest in "the psychopathy of celebrity".

"I've always had a fascination with the music industry," Stephens tells me. "I think I learnt my sense of masculinity from rock stars as much as from my dad or my uncles or my brother. My understanding of my sense of self is as defined by the world of rock and roll as by anything else."

As well as exploring fame and the rock industry, Stephens is attempting to use his rock star protagonist to speak more broadly to the experience of modern life. He talks about our constant connection to technology and the ubiquity of the selfie as creating a world in which "it's kind of like we're all our own personal rock stars", raising questions about where we locate our sense of self. Stephens also describes the music industry's financial structure of huge advances as representing a "microcosm for our debt economy", pointing back to David Bowie's invention of the futures market in the 1980s, when he essentially bet on the future success of his music. "It's all David Bowie's fault."

A big draw for audiences is the opportunity to see Andrew Scott, now best known as Sherlock's antagonist Moriarty on the BBC television show, return to the stage. Stephens describes Scott, who we run into at the National Theatre poring over his script, as "ridiculously good". The pair last worked together on Sea Wall, a devastating monologue that found unexpected success as a video released online, before later enjoying a sold-out run in The Shed. "The whole Sea Wall phenomenon completely blindsided both of us," Stephens admits. "None of my other plays have inspired that level of affection." He expects the response to Scott's troubled character in Birdland to be different, however, not least because "it's hard to have sympathy with tremendously successful people".

Returning to his passionate interest in rock music, Stephens recalls a quote from Sam Shepard: "He says he was only ever a playwright because he wishes he was in the Rolling Stones and wasn't". Although Stephens was briefly in a band of his own when he was younger – the art punk group Country Teasers – the same drive might apply to his urge to write. And at its best, he suggests, theatre can rival its louder, sexier cousin. "I value the potential for theatre to be as kinetic and alive and unpredictable and astonishing as a rock and roll gig."

Birdland opens at the Royal Court on 9 April 2014 (previews from 3 April); The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time reopens at the Gielgud Theatre on 24 June