Obsessions bared over a dead dog in the night

Ahead of his latest Tokyo opening, playwright Simon Stephens reveals some of his driving forces over coffee with Nobuko Tanaka


Special To The Japan Times

“It’s f-cking amazing! I don’t know what else to say. I’m really happy and really moved and I’m so humble about that.”

One of the most influential, magnetic — and busy — English playwrights at work today, 43-year-old Simon Stephens opened his round eyes wide and laughed with delight when I told him I’d just seen his desperately romantic 2011 smash-hit play “Wastwater” at the cozy Kinsen-Pit studio in downtown Tokyo — and that I would soon also be seeing, uptown and in Japanese, his hugely acclaimed work “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” which premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2012.

Adapted from a 2003 novel of the same name by Mark Haddon, this work that literally brought the house down last December, when part of the ceiling fell onto the audience during a performance at the Apollo Theatre in the West End (just a month after this writer saw it there), centers on a withdrawn 15-year-old named Christopher Boone who finds the body of a neighbor’s dog one night while he’s wandering around his nondescript suburban English neighborhood. Distraught to be suspected of killing the dog, this young math genius turns detective to find the real culprit.

In cleverly pursuing his whodunit, though, Christopher for the first time steps away from his fiercely protective father and recognizes how important his special talent is to him. In the process, he also relishes a new sense of independence and gains a positive attitude toward his future — while uncovering unexpected aspects of the dog’s demise.

A month ago, shortly after Stephens flew back to London from the New York opening of his vivid 2012 reworking of “A Doll’s House” by “the father of realism,” Henrik Ibsen, I was able to enjoy premium chatting time with him in a cafe at the Royal Court Theatre, his home base in super-posh Chelsea where he was preparing for the April 3 premier of “Birdland,” his latest original play that questions the meaning of life through the ruminations of a materially gorged rock star.

When I expressed surprise that a playwright would be taking part in rehearsals — something not done in Japan — he answered, “I think in Britain it’s the orthodoxy. I love that. I learn about writing for theater from being in a rehearsal room. It nourishes me, rather than being something that drains me; I think it makes me a better playwright and I want to write for the actors who I work with. I’ll be with an actor and I’ll be fascinated with them as an animal — or a director or even an empty theater.”

Clearly, audiences worldwide are also fascinated with the works of this remarkably productive artist. Not only are his plays now being staged in New York and London and (two within two months) in Tokyo, but also when “The Curious Incident” opens here on Friday, April 4, it will be one of 33 of his productions running worldwide, in 25 countries to date. If your name’s not Shakespeare or Chekov (or Ibsen), that’s pretty phenomenal.

“It’s very frenetic,” Stephens not unreasonably concedes. “I am opening four plays in the first four months this year and I’ve got three commissions to write this year as well, but it’s hardly a terrible thing and I’m not going to dry up or have a nervous breakdown — I’m just very restless.

“I think in my plays there are unifying questions that I’m obsessed with. I’m obsessed with how we live in the shadow of our knowledge of our own deaths. I think it’s a very universal theme: How do you live when you know you are going to die? Personally, I’m obsessed with it, and as a writer it’s in all the plays.”

But that’s not the end. “How is it possible to love in a world that is atomized and fractured?” Stephens inquires, looking intently into my eyes and continuing, “I’m obsessed with the question of how is it possible to have empathy in a world that makes empathy really difficult. And is it naive to be optimistic? Or, in fact, is optimism the only intelligent, mature response to the world. Do we have a political responsibility to be optimistic? — I am obsessed with that.”

Then, further exposing his creative drivers, he adds, “I’m obsessed with the question of whether it is possible to be at home in a world where the tectonic plates of what home is are constantly shifting — or, if you leave home, is it ever possible to return home.

“I don’t think I’ve ever written a play that has satisfied those obsessions.”

It’s obvious that this London-resident father-of-three from outside Manchester in northern England has multiple concerns he brings to his works — though he insists he’s always questing.

“I think every play I write is, to an extent, a failure,” this paragon of success declares. “Every play fails and I need to try again. I always have energy for the next one because I’ve never got it right. Every time I think I’ve got it, and every time I’ve failed. But as an artist, I love it.”

Regarding his upcoming Tokyo version of “The Curious Incident,” I ask him about the problems of making drama from a novel.

“What problems?” you can almost hear him saying to himself — before he explains, “What’s remarkable is that Mark’s written it from the point of view of Christopher Boone’s voice, and the voice he’s created is intoxicating and spellbinding and we read that novel and we wish we were Christopher. In a small way, we wish we saw the world with the same level of imagination and intelligence and detachment with which he sees it. We cherish that — we love it in him.

“However, his inner voice is innately undramatic. So, the play had to move Mark’s story from what Christopher saw or felt or observed, and what he said, to what he did.”

In this Japanese version translated, as with most of Stephens’ works, by Atsuro Hirota, adapted by the award-winning playwright and director Ryuta Horai and directed by the multiculturally acclaimed Yumi Suzuki, the key role of Christopher is played by Go Morita.

Though he’s also a member of the “idol” pop group V6, Morita has built a solid reputation as an actor for such esteemed directors as Yukio Ninagawa, Hidenori Inoue and Amon Miyamoto. And certainly, his portrayal of the sensitive genius at the heart of this piece will be a key to its appeal here — an appeal this writer is sure will bring the house down again (though it’s to be hoped, not literally).

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” runs April 4-20 at Setagaya Public Theatre in Tokyo. It then plays April 24-29 at Theatre Brava in Osaka. For details, call (0570) 02-0400, or visit www.cidn.jp.