Pornography - Simon Stephens interview


Shock values - Traverse Theatre

As the Traverse embarks on its first Edinburgh Festival Fringe season under the artistic directorship of Dominic Hill, Steve Cramer talks to acclaimed dramatist Simon Stephens, writer of Pornography, about 7/7 and a new definition of the pornographic

We live today in a world where the impersonal practice of sex – formerly an intimate matter – is betrayed by the very commonalities of spoken language. The ‘money shot’ is a phrase used across the culture to describe any climactic moment. Many people profess themselves baffled by the age of the abbreviation and acronym when you mention the G8 and CAP, but all of them smile knowingly at the letters BDSM.

Playwright Simon Stephens is – if you will – hardcore on the subject of pornography, yet beyond the title of his new play, the topic figures minimally in its action. Instead, pornography is seen as a symbolic symptom of our disaffection, our isolation from other people and capacity to erase the humanity of those around us, treating other people as if they were abstracts, rather than flesh and blood human beings.

With Pornography about to make its UK premiere as part of this year’s Traverse Fringe programme, Stephens reflects upon the play’s only production, thus far, in Germany.

‘We live in pornographic times,’ he says. ‘The dramaturge for the production in Berlin sent me this fantastic article from a magazine where the journalist had selected close up photographs of people’s faces in pornographic images and magazine advertisements. All you could see were the faces. The challenge was to tell which came from which, and it was difficult. The atomisation of our culture, its fixation on aspirational pleasure is all pervasive, it’s absolutely everywhere.’

Stephens has, in recent years, become one of the most celebrated writers in English theatre, but his work, beyond ATC’s production of One Minute in 2003, a piece about the search for an abducted child, has yet to see a major production north of the border. The Traverse, in netting this British premiere, has pulled off something of a coup. A co-production with Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the piece was originally produced by the mighty Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg.

Stephens’ earlier work, including Herons and Country Music, were often about complex emotional relationships among small, intimate groups of people. Yet, increasingly, his oeuvre has assumed larger political dimensions. This has proved disquieting for left and right alike. In plays such as last year’s Motortown, Stephens’ work has proved as willing to question the motivation behind such bodies as the anti-war movement as it has multinational capitalism.

‘There was an element of advocating the sovereignty of Saddam Hussein in the anti-war movement,’ Stephens explains. ‘What I’m saying is, it’s possible to recognise the moral crisis of colonialism, but also to say, “You know what, the Zimbabwe government is fucked.” I’m from a generation that recognises the contradictions and complexities. So, subsequently, I’m nervous about phrases like ‘state of the nation play’ being applied to my work.’

For all that, Stephens’ focus in Pornography is relentlessly political. Veering from euphoria to devastation, the play is set in the three days in 2005 that lead up to the 7/7 bombings in London. It incorporates the experiences of seven people, taking in the highs of the Gleneagles G8 summit and the announcement of the London Olympics through to the bombings themselves.

‘When we found out about who the bombers were, a lot of people expressed shock that they were British, but I wasn’t surprised at all,’ he says. ‘One of the initial impulses of writing the play came from that spirit of incredulity.’

He adds: ‘The media’s impulse was to fundamentally demonise these boys, but also, by proxy, to demonise fundamentalists, then the whole Islamic religion. When you start reading about attacks on Sikhs and Hindus then you realise that things have gone pretty awry. What struck me at the time was not a sense of disbelief about these boys being British; there was something fundamentally British about the act itself. I mean, the whole architecture of what they did, driving down the M1, getting the train at Luton airport, the train from there to King’s Cross with their Fitness First backpacks – it was all so very British.’

What’s very British, too, for Stephens, is the isolation and atomisation that leads to violence. For him, the bombings were part of a bigger pattern established by the extreme individualism created in people by, amongst other things modern technology. This allows us, be it through internet porn or mobile messaging to make abstracts of other people, divesting them of their status as flesh and blood creatures like ourselves.

‘These young men are a symptom of these phenomena not their cause. That isolation leads to increasing violence; it leads to further atomisation. Our need for the internet, our mobiles, our iPods, the Metro newspaper boom: they all point to this. Their act of teenage violence seems to me to be extremely British.’

Yet, if Stephens is interested in highlighting a political issue, his literacy in theatre underpins it. His starting point for constructing the play was the speech of the world-weary Jacques in As You Like It, about the seven ages of man. ‘Each character, from the baby to the old man at the end, who in this play is an old lady, has a parallel in the piece. In this case, the soldier figure is in fact a soldier of Islam, but I think so much about life’s journey is summed up in that speech.’

This might give you a hint as to Stephens’ technique, for, while he admires the work of such 70s ‘state of the nation’ writers as Howard Brenton, he disagrees about the approach to character in their work. For Stephens, character is not a means of conveying a message, but rather the lifeblood of drama itself.

‘For me, character is so important. We understand ideas through the behaviour and actions of individuals. I hope people can recognise themselves in the characters they’re watching. Even in a play like Motortown where you see a lot of violence, I think there’s hope in it, and it’s a hope created by self-recognition. I don’t think, in this respect, that my work is as pessimistic as some people have made it out to be. That continued attempt of people to form relationships with characters and each other in this context is very hopeful. Although we do live in pornographic times, people still see the potential to need intimacy and seek it out.’

Pornography, though, is what the piece is about. If the sexual acts we can access so easily on the internet seem to concentrate upon removing intimacy from sex, there’s something equally pornographic about removing context from any act.

In this way perhaps the news coverage of events like 7/7, in creating heroes and villains without context, is equally pornographic. It’s the kind of complexity that Stephens would no doubt wish us to consider.

Pornography, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Sun 3–Sun 24 Aug, various times. Previews Mon 28 Jul & Sat 2 Aug, £11 (£5).


  • 4 stars

Simon Stephens' play, set just before the 7/7 bombings, explores urban alienation with a beautiful blend of optimism and despair.'Part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe'.

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