Mutually Exclusive Worlds?

On Friday I met with a PhD student from Japan who has been drawn to Britain to study the plays of Simon Stephens. Prior to arriving in this country her principle connection with British theatre had been through streamed performances such as NT Live but, eager to stretch her knowledge and experience theatre beyond the London stage, she has chosen to study in Birmingham and travel around the country. From these explorations she has developed an informal thesis which she wanted to test out on me. It seems to her that in Britain there is a theatre world in which playwrights write plays that are then staged under the direction of directors and that there is another world in which plays are devised altogether more collectively and that these worlds have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

On Wednesday I sat in the back row of the Old Vic watching a play called A Very Expensive Poison written by playwright Lucy Prebble, directed by director John Crowley. I was there flirting with DVT because there exist a few portholes between those two worlds and ‘our very own’ Amanda Hadingue squirmed through one of them years ago and is down there knocking out another great performance in a really strong cast showing us how and why Alexander Litvinenko was killed by Russian secret agents in London in 2006.

Initially this does feel like an alien world. I’ve never been to the Old Vic before, it is rammed and I don’t recognise any of the crowd, not that I’m expecting to see my mates but the demographic feels alien. There is a cast of fifteen but we’re not at the RSC and this isn’t Shakespeare so it seems bizarre that there are so many of them. The set is very beautiful, very slick and a very (some might say ‘over’) elaborate. If expense was spared on its construction they’ve done a great job hiding it. Just as I’m starting to succumb to a claustrophobic wave of existential despair the first scene ends and MyAnna Buring, playing Marina Litvinenko steps out of the stage’s frame to address the audience.

All of a sudden another little porthole pops open. They are playing with modes of presentation and the timeline starts to jump around. There are moments of playful theatricality, a paranoid nightmare scene, a silly dances. It is able to be fun and serious, touching, furious and silly. Not everything worked, but when does it ever?

It can only be a couple of hundred metres from the Old Vic to Waterloo tube but even so I end up on the last train back to Brum. Approaching New Street Station at 01:30 it’s difficult to cling to the idea of the porthole, but then who’s fault is it that I have no idea who Simon Stephens is? It’s certainly not his.

“Simon Stephens (born 6 February 1971) is an English playwright…

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