Backstage with playwright Simon Stephens of CURIOUS INCIDENT and NUCLEAR WAR

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is one of the best stage adaptations I've ever seen and this year, it's heading back out on a UK Tour, as well as closing up shop in London's West End. To celebrate, I had a phone call with the show's writer Simon Stephens to talk about Curious Incident's success, his new play Nuclear War, his Royal Court podcast and much, much more...

SN: I read before in an interview that Mark Haddon asked you to dramatise the book… 
SS: In this very building that I am sat in now: the National Theatre Studio. Oh no, we met in this building actually. Gosh, we’ve only been talking for about five minutes and I’m already lying to you!

SN: What was your relationship like with him and the book?
SS: He was on attachment for 8 weeks when we were at the temporary National Theatre Studio down the road and I was on a year-long residency when we met each other. I’d read Curious Incident a couple of weeks before meeting him because I read it when I was writing a play called Motortown [2006, Royal Court] which had a character in who might be described as being, in some sense, “on the spectrum”, which is a simplistic and crude definition and one that I am increasingly uncomfortable with, but at the time I wanted to read Curious Incident and kind of had a very strong reaction to the novel, ended up falling in love with it and ironically (or fittingly because of how the story pans out) getting irritated because I didn’t get to find out about what the other characters are like. I couldn’t imagine the father’s perspective as a father of young kids at the time of reading it. I really wanted to know what his dad was going through and the brilliance of the book is that it resists any other perspective than Christopher’s and while that was compelling, it was also, at the time, really frustrating. One of the joys about writing the adaptation was being able to fully imagine the other perspectives of all of the other characters in Christopher’s constellation. But yeah, we were mates – we were white, straight, middle-aged and middle class men of the same kind of cultural leaning so we liked the same music and we grumbled about coffee and went for lunch together and talked about Sigur Ros and Sonic Youth and things like that and then made friends. That’s how white, straight men make friends: by grumbling about coffee and talking about indie music! And then a couple of years later, he rang me and asked me if I’d make the adaptation. And that was a strange thing because on one hand, even after in the aftermath of the phone call, I turned to my wife and said “you know what, if we do this right, it could really change everything”.

SN: And look at it now!
SS: Well, you know, just talking to another writer really frankly and pragmatically was great. Normally, my plays run for five weeks and this has run for five years. It’s meant that financially, it’s taken a lot of pressure off of me. And has meant that I can write more plays that I really want to write and can do things like Nuclear War at the Royal Court in April and we can run it at the Jerwood Upstairs for 18 shows and it won’t mean that my children can’t have lunch for a while or something like that. At the same time as that, I remember saying to Mark that I don’t wanna take it to a producer or to a director: “I might fuck it up mate and I might not be able to do it; I might fail – give me the right to fail and let me just write it for you and not tell anybody about it so I can really have a go at the process of adaptation”. And he was very happy with that and was tremendously supportive.

Simon Stephens and the original author of the novel Mark Haddon on the stage of Curious Incident

SN: How much influence did he have on your writing process?
SS: On the process, very little. He was the perfect collaborator. He kind of said “ring if you wanna know anything and if you don’t wanna know anything, don’t ring and get on with it on your own. If you have any drafts you want to send me, send them my way and I’ll read them straight away”.

SN: Curious Incident is technically an adaptation and obviously isn’t your story originally and you’ve also done versions before too where you’ve take a foreign language text and translated it like A Doll’s House [2011, Young Vic] which I loved and The Threepenny Opera [2016, National Theatre] which I enjoyed too. How do the processes differ for you?
SS: With versions, I find myself really sticking to the original story and never once straying from what the words in the original language have to say. Someone once told me that to write a good version, you have to love it enough to not want to change it. Same goes for writing an adaptation really. With Curious, I had the chance to add bits in, but I find it really important to stick to the book’s original story as well. We always used to say that myself, Mark and Marianne [Eliot, the show’s director] were the book’s biggest fans which helped us stay faithful to the piece. But when I first said I was going to adapt it, my friend Alistair McDowall turned around to me and said “you do know you’re adapting one of the nation’s favourite books, don’t you?” which made me shit myself.

SN: Did you face anything weird when adapting the novel?
SS: Well what most people don’t seem to know is that Mark Haddon actually wrote about 80% of the dialogue as it’s just lifted from the book, so all I did was add some extra bits in and dramatise it. One time when I took my son to see it when he was about 12, I told him this and he told me that all of the bits I added in were probably just the swear words, which is kind of true really.

SN: Well it’s funny you should say that because the book really does use some foul language. I remember a teacher read it to us in class when we were about 10 years old and eventually stopped reading it to us because the language was so bad.
SS: Well we had to change that for the stage as well: we had to change “cunt” to “twat” a lot in the stage play because that word made the show a lot less young-child friendly.

SN: Do you ever get bored about talking about Curious Incident?
SS: If you think I get bored of talking about Curious sometimes, imagine how many times Mark has been asked about it! And before we made the play, he had really fallen out of love with it until he came to the first read-through and sat at the table with us and ended up in tears because he’d remember what he’d loved about the story in the first place that he’d forgotten as it had gone through the grinder of publicity.

SN: You mention that Mark gets a lot of publicity still about Curious, but he’s done stuff since then. Do you ever feel like there is a negative side to the success of Curious Incident in relation to your own work?
SS: Genuinely, the only time I get bored by the success of it is when I do interviews about it. I’ve given the answer about Mark asking me to do it about a hundred times now and I just think “ah, come on, I don’t need to say it again, do I?” I’m doing another interview on Monday with a journalist in Texas, but apart from that, I fucking love it. I love Marianne’s production and I’ve loved other productions that I’ve seen in other countries. I love the story – it always makes me cry and always makes me laugh, and that’s not just me laughing at my own jokes or crying at my own words but it’s the spirit of collaboration that kind of charges the whole production. You know, there are plays that I’ve written subsequently that I am just as proud of. I was proud of Birdland [2014, Royal Court] and Carmen Disruption [Deutsches Schauspielhaus, 2014] and Blindsided at the Royal Exchange in Manchester [2014 as well] and they run for five weeks and maybe – I don’t know – 20,000 people see them, but they’re just as valuable to me. I love some of my plays that have only played to 20% capacity like The Trial of Ubu at the Hampstead Theatre [2012, directed by Katie Mitchell] – fucking empty that theatre – but I really loved that show and I think it’s possible to love all of the plays kind of equally. But the only time I get tired of Curious is occasionally on the interviews, but you’re very charming so I’ll forgive you.

Bryan Cranston presents Simon Stephens with his Tony Award for Best Play for Curious Incident in 2015

SN: Thanks! How do you feel about the show’s success?
SS: I fucking love it really and everything about it, both for my own work and for others too. The two young men who originated Christopher in London and on Broadway – Luke Treadaway in London and Alex Sharp in New York – were virtual nobodys when we cast them and now, they’re both Olivier and Tony Award-winning actors. It’s fantastic that the show has had so much success for so many of us in loads of different ways

SN: What do you think it is that makes Curious Incident so universal and so special?
SS: We’re lucky with Curious Incident because its West End run and the tour have given so many people the chance to see it and enjoy it. Many more people are going to go and see Curious Incident on a whim like a husband and wife on a Friday night date in comparison to the audience of Nuclear War at the Royal Court this year that will just be full of really intense theatre nerds [like me!] and I think that’s really cool too. I love how Bunny Christie’s design on the set has also become such an intriguing and iconic part of the piece as well and I love how many people Instagram their view of the stage and stuff.

SN: I find that really interesting too. I remember you discussed that topic with David Hare in one of your Playwright’s Podcasts for the Royal Court and you said that there is something very important about getting that visual right now as the curtain is almost always up when you walk into the theatre these days.
SS: Yeah exactly, and you can go to so many places and see a staircase and a chair and everything like that but in this piece, you just see that cool black box and you’re immediately pulled in by it.

SN: Rumour has it, you used to work in a local prison…
SS: I did! I did a playwriting workshop in a prison in Grendon Underwood-

SN: I thought you used to work as a guard at the local prison when I heard that!
SS: Brilliant! Make that the story, that’s much more interesting! How cool would that be?

SN: I just couldn’t believe that it hadn’t come out before, I was so intrigued by your secret rags to riches story of locking prisoners up in the day and then winning Tony Awards for plays by night.
SS: Can you imagine me as a prison guard? I would be the shittest prison guard!

SN: Well I did kind of think that that was a very interesting progression for you. You didn’t really ring prison guard to me…
SS: Ha! No no no, I taught playwriting to the prisoners in Grendon.

SN: What was that experience like?
SS: Extraordinary. They’re genuinely incredible and Grendon’s a therapeutic prison so it is predominantly Class A offenders so it’s basically violent and sexual offenders who do 20 hours a week of group therapy. Making plays with them was immensely moving and remains some of the best work that I’ve done in my career. They wrote short plays and then some actors from the Royal Court came into the prison and then performed them and the feeling in the room of 120 killers watching the plays that they had written was electric. Somebody told me afterwards that the feeling of making somebody laugh with the jokes he had written in his play felt as though he was free and he said that he’d never felt that before. He’d made so many people unhappy in his life and the idea that he was making some people happy was transformative for him and he felt like he was free.

SN: What did they write about?
SS: They chose their own topics and wrote about all kinds of things. Some were some really romantic love stories – nobody really wrote about crime, they were quite imaginative. When I did the workshop again in another prison, I decided that we should make a running theme for the evening of plays and they also chose love stories to be their theme.

SN: Do you go to the theatre a lot?
SS: Yeah, yeah, I go every Tuesday night.

SN: Tuesday? Why Tuesday specifically?
SS: It’s the night that fits best around my children and my wife really. I pick my daughter up from school on a Wednesday and things like that. That is unless I take the kids to the theatre with me of course. Like last week when I took my daughter to see Peter Pan at the National Theatre-

SN: Oh I loved that!
SS: Oh I loved that too, such a good show. Or like when I took my son a few weeks ago to see LOVE at the National Theatre, too.

SN: Where do you work when you’re writing?
SS: I can literally work anywhere. I write in cafes, coffee shops, workshops – literally anywhere. We have a study at home as well so I like to work in there as well.

SN: And where do you get all of your best ideas? Mine always come to me in the shower...
SS: Yeah, a lot of people say the shower and I agree, but I can get mine most places too. Especially when I’m walking. And pissing is a good one, too.

SN: What is the best show you’ve ever seen?
SS: Ivo van Hove did a production called Roman Tragedies a while ago and it was just incredible. Incredible direction by Ivo, incredible acting and fantastic storytelling. It was Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra but set in a conference room for six hours straight without any real interval and you’re encouraged to walk around and have a drink and live tweet and stuff. It was amazing.

SN: And what shows are you most excited to see coming up this year?
SS: Roman Tragedies when it returns to the Barbican in a few months!

SN: Well I’m feeling pretty excited for your Nuclear War at the Royal Court in April!
SS: It’s funny that we’re talking on the day of Trump’s inauguration and would be even funnier if my play was running while an actual nuclear war was taking place, too.

SN: You know, I don’t think “funny” is the word that comes to mind when you mention nuclear war, Simon...

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is now on its second UK tour and you can buy tickets now. The play also continues at London's Gielgud Theatre thru June 3rd and his play Nuclear War stars its sold out run at the Royal Court in April. You can also listen to Simon's Playwright's Podcast with the Royal Court - a personal favourite - right now.

This interview is an extended version of an interview printed in the next edition of Vale Life Magazine. It has been edited and condensed for publishing purposes. Please be aware that some sections of the conversation have been omitted for the sake of the interview's flow.

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