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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Friday, September 24, 2010

Interview with Simon Stephens about Punk Rock

Published in The Scotsman

Interview: Simon Stephens, playwright

WHEN Simon Stephens graduated from York University at the start of the 1990s, his instinct was to head north. His friends were all moving to London, but this Cheshire-born playwright felt a pull in the opposite direction. That is how he came to fetch up in Edinburgh where he would live for a "defining" two years.

Once there, he did what any aspiring playwright would do: he took a job in the café above the old Edinburgh Bookshop on George Street, came home after his evening shift and wrote into the night.

It wasn't the only work he did. He also set himself up as a DJ and has never forgotten the embarrassment of his first gig – an 18th birthday party where nobody but close family turned up. But the memory that really stays with him is his daily walk past the King's Theatre in Tollcross. "I used to walk to work past the dock door of the King's Theatre," he says. "When they were doing a get-in or a get-out, you could look through the dock door and see that space. I used to fantasise about writing a play that'd be playing at the King's."

Now, more than 15 years later, his ambition is being realised. Having won rave reviews at London's Lyric Hammersmith, his Punk Rock is on a national tour that reaches the King's next week. Stephens, now living in London with his wife and three children, says he'll find it hard to resist returning to Edinburgh to see it for himself.

The inspiration for Punk Rock lies not in Edinburgh, but with an even earlier memory. Stephens grew up in Stockport and went to secondary school at an all-boys comprehensive, known prosaically as Stockport School. Immediately over the road was Stockport Grammar, a 500-year-old fee-paying school for which pupils had to sit an entrance exam. The young Stephens would look enviously at the grand red-brick building and fantasise about what life would be like inside. It dominated his teenage imagination.

"There's so much of me in this play and so much of my childhood and particularly my teenage years," says Stephens who, even today, has never set foot in the grammar school. "It's a synthesis of an imagined world, an experienced world and a researched world. My school was the worst of both worlds. There was none of the civilising influence of the girls and a lot of tension and aggro. The grammar school was always the imagined 'other' that I never experienced."

It continued to haunt his adult imagination, which is why he thought it would make a perfect setting for a play about the simmering pressures of today's goal-driven society. Punk Rock fits in with a pattern of Stephens's plays that, typically, worry away at the stresses of 21st-century life and those headline-grabbing global events that seem so inexplicable.

In Pornography, which was named best play in the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland in 2009, he framed the London bombings of 7 July, 2005 in terms of the wider alienation of a world of sexual opportunism, racism and narcissism. In Sea Wall, seen at Edinburgh's Traverse last year, he considered the problem of believing in God in a world that is both beautiful and cruel. For this year's Fringe, he wrote a short play, T5, superbly performed by Meg Fraser at the Traverse, in which a woman reels from the shock of witnessing a meaningless teenage stabbing in a local park.

Here, in Punk Rock, he uses a Columbine-style high-school massacre to question society's drive for academic success. For all their learning, the sixth-form students are as fearful of anyone outside their privileged bubble as they are neurotic about their exam performance. For at least one pupil, the sweet-natured William Carlisle (winningly played by star-in-the-making Rupert Simonian), the pressure is too great to cope with.

"A lot of the play was a juxtaposition of my imagined future of my kids' schooling experience with the sense of the terror of something like a Columbine massacre," says the playwright.

"Although the massacre happened in 1999, it seems emblematic of the start of this century – that schism in morality, that kind of transgression, that kind of horror. At the heart of these plays is the nature of transgression, people living in a culture of fear, trying to live with dignity and grace. What Pornography, Punk Rock and T5 share is the seductive nature of transgression. It's the fear one has when holding a baby of deliberately dropping them, when on the edge of train track of jumping in front of it just to see what it's like. Those possibilities are constantly there for everybody."

His fears about the dangers of the modern world were intensified as soon as he became a father. "I suddenly became much more sensitive to the political and economic environment we were living in," he says. "I was working as a schoolteacher at the time and I remember almost overnight changing my attitude to some of the kids who were giving me a really hard time, because I saw their inner baby. A lot of artists use their creativity to make sense of things they're afraid of. Columbine is frightening, even though it happened in America, because of the possibility that it might happen in my kids' school."

With its young cast and fusty academic setting, Punk Rock comes across as a slightly more with-it version of The History Boys. Surprisingly, Stephens makes no bones about his debt to the celebrated Alan Bennett play. In fact, he is uncommonly open about all his influences. Where many writers would deliberately shut themselves off from any artwork that dealt with a similar theme, lest they be overly indebted to them, Stephens embraces them as a source of inspiration and challenge.

"I'm really indebted to other playwrights," he says, quite serious when he adds that Punk Rock is structured like a 1940s Terence Rattigan play. "Punk Rock is informed by Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening and I was very aware of The History Boys when I was writing it. There are other plays like Brukner's Pains of Youth, which inspires the sexuality of the play, and films like Lindsay Anderson's If.... and Gus Van Sant's Elephant. The first part of any writing for me is about absorbing information and consciously looking for inspiration."

In the same way that Pornography was not directly about pornography, Punk Rock is not directly about punk rock. Where the earlier play used pornography as an unspoken metaphor for a degraded society, this one uses punk as an unspoken metaphor for middle-class rebellion.

"For me, punk is not so much that specific era between 1976 and 1978 so much as a spirit of defiance and aspiration for something more," says Stephens. "It is a spirit of wanting to get out and destroy the uncreative, of wanting to be dissident and to buck against the system. When you look at the musicians who made the great punk rock music, quite often they were middle-class art school boys, so there's a deliberate juxtaposition of that title and this middle-class grammar school."

• Punk Rock is at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, 28 September until 2 October

© Mark Fisher 2010

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