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Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens talks to Tom Wicker about reviving the spirit of CHRISTMAS at the White Bear Theatre

A week before Christmas, in an East-End pub, hardĖbitten landlord Michael Macraw awaits the arrival of his customers. In comes local misfit Billy-Lee Russell, local barber Guissepe Rossi and a series of punters performing magic tricks. Last of all comes Charlie Anderson: ex-classical-musician-turned-postman.

As the evening progresses and the booze flows, it becomes clear that one of these men has a secret he dare not shareÖ

Christmas is a rarely performed early play by award-winning writer Simon Stephens. It premiered at the Bush Theatre in 2004 and has just opened at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington in a new revival by the theatreís artistic director Michael Kingsbury. It runs from now until 21 December 2014.

Since writing Christmas, Stephens has achieved huge acclaim for bold, challenging and imaginative work staged at theatres like the Royal Court and The National, as well as internationally. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Ė his adaptation of the Mark Haddon novel Ė won seven Olivier Awards and is currently playing in the West End at the Gielgud Theatre. Most recently, Stephens adapted Anton Chekhovís The Cherry Orchard for a new production at the Young Vic, directed by Katie Mitchell.

Stephens has maintained strong ties with the off-West End London theatre scene. His play Three Kingdoms Ė which debuted in Estonia Ė received its English premiere in 2012 in a production directed by Sean Holmes at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, where he is currently one of three artistic associates.

I spoke with Stephens on the phone shortly after Christmas opened at the White Bear, as he made his way from Reading to London. While negotiating taxi fares and train platforms, he explained to me the unusual way that the playís revival came about, the personal connections behind it and why it remains significant to him professionally.

Youíve been very involved with this revival, havenít you? Why?

Thereís two motivational factors to generate my greater involvement in this. One is artistic and the other is personal Ė itís the crossover of the two.

Whatís the personal reason?

Itís anecdotal and quite funny. Weíve had some work done on our house over the course of the past 18 months by a brilliant builder called Alistair Mercer. He was around for quite a long time and he was a lovely guy and really became a popular figure in our household. Over the course of the year he told me that he was a big theatre goer and was quite interested in my work, and that his regular pub was called The White Bear in Kennington. He knew Michael Kingsbury, the artistic director there, and he got to chatting to Michael, who was quite excited that Al was working on my house.

What happened next?

Michael said to Al, Ďwell, if heís got any plays heíd like to do, let us know.í I didnít have any new, unproduced plays, but I did have Christmas. Iím very fond of Christmas, for a couple of reasons. Itís an early play of mine Ė before Herons, in fact Ė that I originally wrote in 1999. It was my first professional commission. In many ways, itís a personal play; one where, more than any other, the presence of my dad, who died in 2001, is quite legible. Itís about a man at the height of his middle age whoís lost a lot of money and is dealing with the mess of his life caused by alcoholism. And my dad died of alcohol-related illness when he was 59 years old. So his presence makes the play precious to me.

Itís also a play thatís rarely done and often overlooked. There are some in my back catalogue that are put on quite often Ė Pornography is done all the time, Motortown is done a fair amount, Herons is done quite often because it has a young cast and Punk Rock is being f**king done everywhere at the moment. Also, Christmas is about a pub. And I liked the gesture of doing a play about a pub in a pub theatre. Combining that with the fact that Alistair Mercer went on to make the set for this production, I just wanted to be around for Michael as much as I could be.

So what was it like returning to Christmas

Whatís interesting to me about it is that its characteristics come out of the way it was done. It was the last thing I wrote without really understanding a great deal about theatre conventions. A lot of the writing was instinctive and intuitive. I had an idea for character and an idea for situation: I knew I wanted to base it in a pub and for it to be about men. I didnít really know a great deal else. I also knew that I wanted to write the theatrical equivalent of The Poguesí ĎFairytale of New Yorkí. I loved the idea of writing a Christmas play that had the same sentimentality (and absence of it) as that song Ė that could be as honest and brutal and tender. But apart from that, I didnít really know a great deal.

When I look at Christmas now, thatís legible in the writing. I wrote it not knowing what characters were going to say before they found themselves speaking. That gives the play a really organic quality and a sense of the tangential. I was in much more dramaturgical control over the plays I wrote subsequently. And often a playís strengths as well as its weaknesses come from the same place. So I love Christmas because it breaks rules. It does things youíre not meant to do. Youíre not meant to have characters Ė actors Ė coming in for just two minutes. It has a meandering, organic movement that I think my following plays have maybe lacked, because Iíve been much more controlled in the writing. So I cherish that in it.

How much, then, does it feel like a snapshot of your life?

In massive ways, it doesnít. Itís about men that Iím nothing like Ė a publican, a bricklayer, a hairdresser and a cellist. Iíve never done any of those jobs. And all the experiences the characters have, so many of them are imagined. But I have drank in pubs like this one. And the play came from a time in my life when I was spending a lot of time in working menís boozers and noticing that, as a cultural phenomenon, that type of pub was ending. Pubs have changed so much in the past 15 years. And in so many ways, for the better.

In most pubs in England now you get a pretty decent amount of food and if you ask for a glass of wine youíre likely to be offered a selection. And some of them might be pretty good. But what youíre less likely to have is those institutions whose sole purpose is for men at the end of a working week to just go and get a bit pissed. And while I think itís largely a good thing that those pubs donít happen so much anymore, thereís also a sense of melancholia about their disappearance. Theyíve been replaced, of course, by the Wetherspoon chain.

And thereís something melancholic about Christmas, too, isnít there?

Thatís absolutely right. Especially for people on their own, itís a time of real fragility and a time of thinking ĎWhat the fuck have I done with my life?í Itís a time of great nostalgia. The way the two public holidays Ė Christmas and New Year Ė span the end of the same week, you have one which is about looking back over the year and one which is about the looking forward to the next one. Christmas is about reflecting on the past and so many of our Christmases are defined by those of our childhood. Itís a great moment for reflecting on what our lives have been.

Isnít that a great scenario for theatre?

The danger is that it creates drama that is reflective rather than active. But I think if you can manage that balance, then it is rich in potential.

Youíve said elsewhere that Chekhovís The Cherry Orchard influenced Christmas.

Yeah, it absolutely did. And itís not just the cultural thing of a sector of the population finding themselves redundant in the face of political and economic changes they canít understand, which is what I really started off with Ė there are direct lines in Christmas that quote from The Cherry Orchard.

Youíve admired Chekhov for some time and adapted The Cherry Orchard for the Young Vic this year. How was that?

Working on The Cherry Orchard is, in many ways, a terrible thing for a playwright to do because you just leave it with a sense of the mastery of Chekhov and your own incompetence. You think, ĎIím never going to be anywhere nearly good enough. Iím never going to get close to that level of command and insight.í Youíre faced with a choice of just carrying on or trying to be better, and itís mainly inspiring, but every so often you think, ĎF**k, Iím never going to get there.í

And where would you say you are at the moment?

Iím at the foothills of the mountain.

With your exposure to off-West End theatre in its various forms, what are the pleasures of the pub theatre?

Itís thrilling walking into that space at the White Bear. Youíre really in the room with those people. And that intimacy is difficult to capture in any other form Ė itís magnificent. The other thing is that the cast of Christmas are f**king great actors. Itís not an amateur production, itís a fringe production and itís professional. But thereís an amateur spirit running through it. I think itís quite often misinterpreted, that word Ďamateurí, in England. It has connotations of people who arenít good enough to make their living from something. But that isnít what it means Ė it means doing it for love. And thatís something itís easy to take your eye off. When we make theatre, we should all be amateurs. We should be doing it because we love it.

Thereís also a strong sense of local engagement when it comes to fringe venues, isnít there?

I think definitely with the White Bear Ė and especially now itís been renovated. The White Bear itself is living through the changes of having been an old boozer. The likelihood of getting a new bit of fettuccini and a decent rioja is much more likely now than it was a few months ago.

Historically, thereís been a perception that the most challenging theatre work emerges on the fringes. Do you still think thatís true?

Iím not an expert on fringe theatre, but I think what you can get is a spirit of risk that comes out of the love of theatricality Ė that frees itself from a commitment to paying a staff of 60 people. One of the things I know about the Lyric Hammersmith in recent years, with things like Secret Theatre coming in the wake of Three Kingdoms is that [artistic director] Sean Holmes, as an artist, has a real commitment to experimenting with form. But heís also got a staff of 40 people that heís got to pay. Heís got a responsibility to them. He has to take that seriously.

With all theatres of any size, thereís a constant process of having to negotiate that kind of tension. But my sense of fringe theatre in London is that it retains its vibrancy despite the economic difficulties of just getting the money together to put a show on. Some of the most exciting work Iíve seen this year has been off the main stage, at places like Battersea Arts Centre, Camden Peopleís Theatre. And then there are places like the Park Theatre and the Arcola, which has always had a vibrancy to it. Thereís an energy to that work that I think really informs the heart of more mainstream theatre.

What I would say is that, at the moment, theatre on the whole is in quite a vibrant position, with with people like Sean at the Lyric and Vicky Featherstone going into the Royal Court Ė and with The Shed at the National Theatre, which has really captured that fringe spirit right there on the South Bank. You could argue that when youíve got Vicky getting Chris Thorpe and Chris Goode to work at the Royal Court Ė that crossover from Battersea Arts Centre on the other side of Vauxhall Bridge Ėthat thereís a slight dilution of the tension thatís often been so creative. But on the whole I think thereís a real energy in theatre in Britain at the moment. Itís as energetic and as exciting as I can remember.

And finally Ė have you booked your ticket for Christmas?

Thereís a part of me thatís quite keen to go towards the end of the run Ė to get as close to Christmas as I can. Thereís something about seeing that play in the run up to Christmas thatís really lovely. And the idea of going a week before the day itself might be quite sweet, because itís set a week before Christmas day. But I have a feeling that Michael might lose his patience with me if I donít see it sooner!

Christmas is at the White Bear Theatre from now until 21 December. For more information, and to book tickets, go to: http://whitebeartheatre.co.uk/event/details/christmas-by-simon-stephens/






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Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown II

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

Arcola to Create World's First Carbon Neutral Theatre

Interview with Nell Leyshon, Writer of Glass Eels at the Hampstead Theatre

A New Start for the Southwark Playhouse

The Mark Shenton Show

Theatre has moved on - whatever we critics think

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