Playwright Simon Stephens has a fantastic habit of including a question in his answers. It might just be that my questions are a bit weak but he seems to enjoy wondering aloud in the middle of a conversation: “Is it possible to be increasingly less certain?” he says at one point, “Is it an English thing to be suspicious of travel?” he says at another. And later, “Why hasn’t Lesley Sharp played Hamlet!?” long pause, “It’s fucking crazy! She’d be an amazing Hamlet and it’s an absurdity that that hasn’t happened!”
Gender in writing and casting rears its head when Simon reveals that in her embryonic stages, Racheal Keats, the protagonist for his play Port, was in fact a man. But more on that story later.
For now, theatre’s most prolific contemporary playwright, the writer of Punk Rock, Pornography, Three Kingdoms and adaptor of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is being very kind about sitting outside in the freezing cold to avoid an exceptionally noisy café. He’s also giving a superbly spontaneous speech about how to achieve our full potential. “I’m a boring fucking middle-aged old social fucking democrat” he says, “and I kind of think we’d be better off if we invested more in ourselves as a group.”
This comes after a discussion about a scene in Port, currently at National Theatre, Lyttelton directed by Marianne Elliot. Simon’s 2002 play, follows Racheal Keats at two-year intervals in her life in Stockport from the ages of 11 to 24. In those deprived suburbs, she contends with the mess her absentee mother leaves behind including an emotionally vacant father and a damaged, vulnerable younger brother.
The scene we’re talking about sees Racheal at 17 ask her grandmother to help her out with the deposit for a flat but like most of Racheal’s plans, it doesn’t quite work out. The point, says Simon, is about empowering Racheal to do it herself.
“The word ‘entitlement’ is a really complicated word, isn’t it?” he begins, “I noticed in my work as a teacher, a rather unsettling and perhaps counter-intuitive phenomena. The troubling extent to which emerging writers tended to attain the level which, in their heart they felt entitled to attain, is quite startling. It’s a limited belief in their capabilities and I can’t help feeling that culturally and economically and socially in this country, we’ve constipated people’s entitlement along class and gender and racial grounds in a way that makes us poorer as a nation.”
The belief in our capabilities, he emphasises, is what enables us to turn things around and this idea is expounded in every scene of Port. “But” he says about breaking cycles and making change, “the notion of inevitability speaks of determinism and that makes me nervous. I always think that Port is quite an optimistic play disguised as a cynical play. Racheal can always take agency over her own life. At the very least she can try to.”
So if we’ve drawn lines about that agency around class, gender and race, how much of Racheal’s agency is down to her being a woman, especially considering she started life in Simon’s mind as a man before he realised (after seeing Leo Butler’s 2001 play, Redundant) that he was writing about a woman. “Well,” he says, “something I wrote in the introduction to the book. and I don’t even know if it’s true but you know, I wrote it down once so I thought I’d say it out loud now: I wonder to what extent the emotional and psychological metabolism of the North is down to the women. The men were working so the women were raising the children and if the women were raising the children the women are more able to determine the emotional metabolism of the town aren’t they? We’re talking 20th century as opposed to 19th century when women were often working as well, and the second world war being the exception that tested that.”
“Gender” he continues, “is one of the defining axis of a character like economics, race, religion, experience, biography, DNA. When I was growing up as a student – and I’ve only really been interrogating this in the last five years – I always kind of worked from the assumption that economics was the defining motor of behaviour which is quite a Marxist historiography, i.e. that we only really do what we do because of how much money we’ve got, more so than gender. I don’t know if I believe that now. Which is a good thing I guess. The worst thing you can have as a dramatist is intellectual certainty.”
Which brings us back to Simon’s ideas on the tricky notion of entitlement. He’s redefined it so that it encapsulates more than the hand-outs and arrogance that the word is usually associated with.
“I know certain kids of extraordinary youth,” he says, “I’m talking considerably pre-teen kids who would astonish me if they didn’t end up as leading lawyers or a cabinet ministers because they carry it about in their bodies: the sense that that is what they can do. It’s what every parent ought to encourage in their children. If you want to be a journalist/a playwright/a cabinet minister, you can be! You are entitled to! In places like Stockport it’s increasingly difficult to smash the shell of entitlement and say: Do you know what, you fucking can do it if you want. As a nation we ought to take responsibility for encouraging ourselves. I’m a boring fucking, middle-aged old social fucking democrat and I kind of think we’d be better off if we invested more in ourselves as a group.”
Port runs at National Theatre until 24th March.