Simon Stephens’ play about the July 7 bombings is having its first UK performances in Edinburgh and Birmingham. Terry Grimley met him during rehearsals.
If someone was ill-advised enough to put me in charge of a theatre, the first play I would put on would probably be David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago.
The main reason is that it’s hilarious, but the fact that it also has one of the most provocative titles in theatre history might well be another.
So my first question on meeting playwright Simon Stephens last week was obvious: why did he decide to call his play about the July 7 London bombings, Pornography?
“I’ve been asked that before, and not managed to answer it without sounding like a sociology thesis, so good luck with editing this,” was his first response.
“To answer it I need to ask a bigger question: what’s the play about?
“It’s seven interwoven stories, about the first seven days of July 2005 in London, and the seven stories relate to the seven ages of man as articulated so clearly by Jacques in As You Like It.
“That week started with the Live 8 concert, continued with the G8 summit at Gleneagles to Wednesday, July 6, when it was announced that London had won the 2012 Olympics. Then on July 7 four lads from West Yorkshire took bombs on to the Underground.
“At the time there was outrage that these were young men who grew up in Britain. In the video one of them left behind, as alarming as the content of the speech was the West Yorkshire accent.
“It struck me that far from being an aberration, the attack reflected the fact that something had gone awry in the culture.
“Something was going on in England. Increasingly people were becoming alienated from one another. Cultural forces, faiths, our positions in the economy, our regional identities, our national identities, were being obliterated.
“We take solace in our iPods and Metro newspapers, separating ourselves from each other.
“And it seemed to me that this led to an objectification of one another which was exactly the same as in the production and consumption of pornography.”
Still in his 30s, Stockport-born Stephens has an impressive CV which includes an Olivier Award in 2006 for On The Shore Of The Wide World.
He has been a resident dramatist at the Royal Court and was the first-ever resident dramatist at the National Theatre, where his latest play, Harper Regan, was produced earlier this year. His plays have been staged throughout Europe, the US and Australia.
Pornography, which is now being jointly produced by the Birmingham Rep and The Traverse for its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Festival, was first seen at the Deutsche Schauspielhaus, Hamburg, last year.
He explains: “I had a relationship with the artistic director and the play’s director, Sebastian Nübling, but we didn’t know for a long time what the play I was going to write for them would be.
“The first draft was finished in October 2005, just three months after the attack. Because I was writing it for a German director and theatre and a German audience it gave me a distance which it wouldn’t have had if I had been writing it for a London theatre.
“Obviously they were aware of what happened in London.
“They saw it as something that was happening to the West rather than just to London, and they probably watched it with the same distance with which we might watch a play about Bali or Madrid.
“I’m almost as interested to see how the people of Birmingham will respond to the play, or the people of Edinburgh, because of that distance.”
He talks admiringly about the German federal tradition, which means that theatres in Hamburg, Frankfurt or Stuttgart are in no way seen as the poor relations of those in Berlin.
“I reserve the right to change my mind if the play fails in Birmingham, but so far I’ve always been thrilled by audiences outside London, based on my experience of the Royal Exchange in Manchester and The Tron in Glasgow, where I had a great time with One Minute.
“They are much less reserved, and far smarter than people ever give them credit for. Going to the theatre outside London you never get a sense that they are looking around, wondering whether it’s all right to laugh.”
He says he finds the best starting point for a play is to focus on some aspect of the world he doesn’t understand, drawing a distinction between himself, and other writers of his generation, and older writers like David Hare and Howard Brenton who started off with a conviction about how the world could be changed.
“For me theatre is a forum to provide thought and argument. Sarah Kane used to use the term ‘experiential’.
“I write theatre to move people, to get them in the gut and hopefully to make them think about the world in a different way.
“As a playwright I have a lot of time for light frothy comedies, but just at the moment in this particular play I had some questions I wanted to ask.”
Extrapolating from the events of 7/7 to a general view of the state of the world, he finds it difficult to be positive.
The greater connectivity of the internet age means we may be able to feel the emotional impact of world tragedies that would have once seemed remote, but on the other hand it is more difficult not to feel overwhelmed.
“I’m reluctant to use the word gloomy, because I’m an optimistic person. I think it’s impossible to be a playwright and not be an optimist, because it demands faith.
“You give your script to a director and you trust them to do it well, you put it in front of an audience you hope will appreciate it. It’s impossible to be pessimistic and work in the theatre, but while I have only a flimsy understanding of global economics I can’t help feeling there’s something awry in the state of the species.”
He imagines some people might be offended by the relatively sympathetic treatment of a suicide bomber in his play, but argues: “Something I think was much worse than Thatcher’s comment about there being no such thing as society was John Major, in the wake of the James Bulger case, saying that we should understand less and condemn more. We need to think, if we’re ever going to solve any of these problems.”
How controversial or upsetting does he think audiences might find the play?
“There are things in it people might find upsetting. There are moments of violence, moments of linguistic frankness that may not be to everyone’s taste.
“I’m not interested in offending people because it blocks off the emotional response, but it is a play about the first-ever suicide bombings in England.
“I hope people will see the humanity of it and will be open to the ideas in it. I think it looks very beautiful and it’s acted just exquisitely, and I think that Sean Holmes is directing it wonderfully.
“I have a great deal of hope that people, especially outside London, are open to it but if they don’t like it what I have at least tried to do is write something truthful. Sometimes in writing something truthful there are things people might find difficult, but I hope there are also things people will find uplifting.”
* Pornography is at The Traverse, Edinburgh, from Sunday until August 24 and at Birmingham Rep from September 3-20 (Box office 0121 236 4455).