Introduction to NUCLEAR WAR, by Simon Stephens

From ‘Introduction’ to Nuclear War & The Songs for Wende, by Simon Stephens.

I don’t want to talk about the themes or content or any meaning in Nuclear War here. I will leave that interpretation to everybody else. That is the job of collaborators and ultimately audiences. I have a hunch though that the text, like the songs, returns to fascinations that have held my imagination for years and years. There’s nothing surprising in this. It’s what writers do. Rather than inventing new subjects or new ideas when we make work, we return to obsessions.

I want to talk, instead, about the relationship between the text and its performance. I want to draw attention to the initiating stage direction: ‘All of these words may be spoken by the performers but none of them need to be.’ In so doing I want to consider the role of the ‘playwright’ in the making of a night in the theatre, and the role of the ‘director’. I enclose these job titles in inverted commas because I think that in theatre, and especially in the specific case of Nuclear War, there is a fluidity of function. While ostensibly the playwright makes up words for performers to say and things for them to do and a director helps performers say and do them with as much clarity and conviction as possible, in all plays there is a blurring.

I celebrate this blurring. I especially celebrate it opening a show at the Royal Court Theatre, the theatre that has described itself as the world’s leading theatre for playwrights for over half a century.

I wrote Nuclear War without really understanding how words and movement might counterpoint or complement one another. Can words be danced to? Can poetry juxtapose with movement to create an effect that is a product of that juxtaposition however disconnected the individual elements may be? Can this counterpoint or juxtaposition be used to communicate an idea or create an effect?

To celebrate my job title as playwright in a way that doesn’t acknowledge this uncertainty seems dishonest to me. It would also contradict the fundamental drives that underpin the writing of the piece. I wanted to write a text that might suggest such counterpoint and juxtaposition. But I also wanted to write a text that allowed any artists engaging with it the complete freedom of their own decisions. This is a text that is an investigation of the problems of making theatre, not a series of solutions. Why shouldn’t I, then, allow complete freedom of choice for my collaborators? As long as those collaborators, however they define themselves, engage seriously with the content of the text they should feel a freedom to play and to explore. Including, in this case, the freedom to decide who should speak what words and when and in what order.

This is a gesture that I have returned to in my plays over the last decade.

It was a gesture that I first used in 2006 in my play Pornography. I suggested at the start of that play that it could be ‘performed in any order using any number of actors’. In his eloquent and forceful How Plays Work the playwright and teacher of playwriting David Edgar suggested this was because I had in some way ‘abdicated from providing a meaningful connection between (the constituent elements of the play) and that, possibly, (I) regard them as random’.

I admire David and his work. He was not alone. His anxiety was echoed by leading Artistic Directors and Literary Managers at the time. I do think, though, that, like them, he was wrong.

The decision to leave attribution of character and the order of utterance and action to the artists involved in the staging of my plays is not, I think, born out of abdication but rather of faith and a commitment to a sense of how theatre is made.

The older I get, the more plays I make, the less I think that any playwright should assume that they have a more remarkable or clearer insight into a text than anybody else. Nor do I think that a play should be a blueprint to describe a performance that prescribes image and intention as well as utterance. Instead, for me, a play is a series of suggestions that may lead to a performance in the theatre.

I value the rehearsal room as a space of imagination as much as it is a reading room. Inspired by Sarah Kane’s last two plays and, like her, by Martin Crimp’s revolutionary Attempts on Her Life I like the idea that a director and an artistic team and a company of performers might have to bring their intelligence and interpretation to the rehearsal room in staging my play. It struck me that insisting that collaborators enjoy a freedom to interpret demanded that those collaborators engage intellectually with the same level of responsibility as I did and do. Rather than abandoning an intellectual responsibility to my text I was insisting upon that responsibility being shared by everybody in the whole rehearsal room.

Similar experiments sat under Three Kingdoms and The Trial of Ubu and more clearly in Carmen Disruption, but also in my adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Those plays are charged with problems and questions in their very form. To different degree and in different ways, these plays demand that actors and directors ask of them, ‘How the hell do we stage this thing?!’

This is important to me because form and process articulate idea with exactly the same fullness and depth as do linguistic content or structure or image.

A simple speed read of Nuclear War will throw up the same problems for any reader. There are no character names. There are deliberate blurrings of character and action. It is unclear which words are stage directions and which words might be utterances. In this piece, specifically, it is unclear which words are prompts for an image or language to be spoken or sung. And if spoken or sung it is unclear how many voices need to do the speaking or the singing.

This text is charged with these problems because I want my collaborators to bring their imagination to my work.

Of course there is a possibility that some productions of plays like Pornography or Nuclear War might not properly engage in the emotional muscle or thematic concerns of the texts. In this sense productions may, as Edgar suggest, end up seeming random. In their randomness they may veer wildly away from my initial intellectual or emotional concerns. I would conjecture that if they did this they would be bad productions. They would buck so obtusely in the face of the material that they just wouldn’t work, regardless of how imaginative they may be. The collaboration needs to exist in the tension of response. To fail to read the text properly would dissipate that tension.

I would suggest, though, that productions of plays that are slavish in their commitment to staging the theatrical performance as imagined by the playwright and revealed in their text may also be very bad. Their badness would come from a room that lacks imagination.

The key is the tension. I have written plays that are defined by conventional, even detailed stage directions and will do so again in the future. The best productions of these plays are defined by the same kind of imagination and energy in the rehearsal room as the best productions of plays that are less conventional in their layout or formal challenges.

I celebrate the tension and want only to empower my collaborators to bring the kind of energy and attack to their rehearsals as I tried to bring to the writing.

I have no interest in directors trying to stage the ‘play as I imagined it’. The text I give them is not a cogent representation of that which I imagined because imagination resists cogency. Rather it is fluid and contradictory and tentative and inchoate. A layout that invites an understanding of that fluidity excites me.

In writing plays I think playwrights should stop assuming they know what they are doing more than anybody else. We don’t.

Rather we offer starting points for combative, exciting, energised collaboration. In that spirit I ask all directors, artistic teams and performers of any of my plays to bring a spirit of fight rather than one of reverence to their work. Read my plays seriously and thoroughly and then kick the shit out of them, If the plays are any good they will yield. If not there is nothing you can do.

I have worked with Imogen Knight on four productions in the past. She is a smarter reader and a better fighter than most people I have known in our industry. I can’t wait to see what happens when she and her team kick the shit out of my text.


Nuclear War & The Songs for Wende is published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama and available now for 10% off R.R.P.