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His father’s death at an early age left playwright and stage director Simon Stone fragile and fearful. But he's all the stronger for it. By Steve Dow.

Australian theatre’s enfant terrible Simon Stone

Playwright and theatre director Simon Stone.
Credit: Jon Reid/Fairfax Syndications

He is 12. His scientist father is suddenly dead at 45. In the boy’s dreams, they meet and walk together through the city of Cambridge, where memories of life with his father are strongest. Until now, the boy thinks life is an entertainment system, designed to please him. He gets angry when the world malfunctions.

He goes to bed in his Melbourne home as early as 8 or 9pm, so that he can be with his father in those dreams. The waking hours are less enjoyable. It is shock. The sadness will come later, when he thinks himself the age of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who too felt haunted with grief for a father. (Scholars place Hamlet’s age as anywhere between the teens and 30, but details and even authorship of stories cycled through the centuries are open to challenge. As Oscar Wilde said, “In point of fact, there is no such thing as Shakespeare’s Hamlet.”)

Simon Stone soon realises through his exposure to great art and literature, hunger for which is spurred by the loss of his father, the biochemist, that there is a fear of death in every culture, and the desire to leave something behind. Not just to tell any story – which is why Stone shies from writing from scratch – but to retell great stories. Hasn’t all major drama, from the Greek myths of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, been built on reimagining pre-existing stories?

As a teenager, Stone reads all of Shakespeare’s works in chronological order and all of Plutarch’s Lives and, in between, watches 15 films a week. He has existential thoughts such as: the world has its own rules, and life means nothing unless I have something to contribute. And he learns: the unimaginable actually happens. I have been destroyed by it. Worse, I have recovered. The only sweet spot is I have gained empathy for others’ suffering.

As a prodigious playwright and stage director in his 20s, Stone dramatically rewrites Ibsen’s The Wild Duck: family dysfunction and death. He removes characters; has others meet and speak who never met and spoke in the Ibsen story. He puts a glass wall around the actors on stage. It’s forensic voyeurism. “We are anatomising a tragedy,” he explains. The Dutch pay a generous amount of money to have Stone’s Wild Duck tour to Amsterdam.

Simon Stone is 30 this year. “I was a kid pretending to be an adult,” he says, “and at some point I suppose I’m going to have to acknowledge I’m an adult.” His career is more hectic yet he’s more relaxed, he says. Until now, in high-stress periods, he starves himself or eats poorly.

He is to leave Australia at the end of the year, basing himself in Europe for at least three years, working in at least three or four different languages regularly for several theatre companies. Born in Basel, Switzerland, to Australian academic parents, German is his first language, and French he picked up, too. After his kindergarten year in Switzerland, the family had moved to Melbourne for his father Stuart’s posting at Monash University. A steady influence has been his mother, veterinary scientist turned teacher Eleanor Mackie, who has seen every one of her son’s shows.

He’s “not a very good actor”, Stone says candidly, appearing to quash any future work on camera, as we sit in MoVida in Sydney’s Surry Hills, where he has just ordered crumbed quail and half a dozen oysters, to be washed down with a couple of beers. He’s dressed in mustard pants, blue trainers and a blue T-shirt that brings out his blue eyes. He has a strong face favoured by film directors that saw him cast in Kokoda, Balibo and Jindabyne. His long hair is now just longish and neatly swept back, and his once unruly beard trimmed.

His last screen role was as a poet’s selfish lover, Lenny, in the awkward Australian film Being Venice, directed by Miro Bilbrough, which failed to gain a theatrical release. Stone says he’s “too aware” of the function of each moment, and is “good at being wooden”. As an actor, he thinks like a director.

Anxiety has been such a constant companion that Stone used to take trains between Sydney and Melbourne, rather than fly. What makes Stone’s nerves manageable now is facing down fears in his life. Among other things, he divorced Jessamy Dyer, an actor turned speech pathologist.

“I split from a partner who had been central to my sense of my own mental health,” he says, “because I was an absolute mess before I met her. And that was a great fear of mine; I felt like I needed her as a stable crutch to my unstable existence. And I think that kind of ruined our relationship. So I faced that fear. And it was like I was watching a ticking bomb, like okay, I’m going to go mad any second now.

“And I didn’t go mad. I was okay. I let myself feel the great grief of separating, and I let myself miss her and I let myself feel all the complications of getting together with another person, and all of that messy stuff made me realise I could survive life. Whereas for four or five years I’d kind of been on tiptoes, thinking that I’d go mad at any point.” His girlfriend now is English-born, New Zealand actor Emily Barclay, whom Stone cast as Nina in his rewrite of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude in 2012 and as Ophelia to Toby Schmitz’s Hamlet last year.

After several years of drastic rewrites of classic tragedies – and the burnt fingers of being forced to reinstate the original ending to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – Stone has fallen to farce. His seven actors are in search of a play, a concept – a director. He is walking away. Madness will reign. It will be his biggest rewrite yet.

The new production

“Cunt!” bearded actor Greg Stone, no relation to the director, roars at the ceiling lights of the Malthouse Theatre stage five days later, light spittle spraying the air. It’s nine days until opening night. “Five months of fucking work down the drain! You know I gave up La Mis to do this!”

The rake-thin lauded actor Robert Menzies turns to his colleague and eloquently, devastatingly corrects his grammar about that popular musical: “It’s generally called Les Mis.” Zahra Newman is sitting on the floor in existential despair. “Can everyone shut the fuck up please!” she yells.

Mitchell Butel enters via a door and puts on his shoes, only to be told he’s no longer playing his character in Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story. None of them are: the estate of the late Ellen Barry, the US playwright’s widow until now uncredited as co-writer, has refused permission. Butel rants that he is the former deputy president of Actors Equity and applies
a sibilant “s” to hiss about their director in absentia: “I’m sorry if Ssssimon can’t handle robust discussion …”

Stone is actually present, chuckling, sitting on a step between the audience seats at this rehearsal, wearing a blue T-shirt, black jeans and sneakers. His actors are squabbling in a choral cacophony. Like children.

“Can you get rid of the ‘fuck right off’, because I think we have had a lot of swearing already,” he tells one of the actors, who are embroidering a real-life re-enactment of The Philadelphia Story debacle after Belvoir and Malthouse negotiations with Ellen Barry’s estate broke down. They are to play themselves on stage; breaking through theatre’s fourth wall with their frustrated heads. “No, that fuck’s good,” the director reassures another actor.

“You really want to punch me?” actor Fayssal Bazzi asks. “Yeah, I do, I do!” answers Greg Stone, at which Simon Stone leaps off the step and jumps sideways in delight, laughing like a carefree child: “That’s good! That’s good!” Sitting in a nearby seat, Emily Barclay, who’s not in this production, follows the script along, prompting actors with the odd forgotten line. Stone’s most common director’s note: faster, faster. He mentions the Marx Brothers.

Six of these actors have worked with Simon Stone before. Gareth Davies, often called upon to do physically embarrassing things in Stone shows, is about to take a pratfall in a scene about activated almonds. In this conceit, the seven actors end up being fooled by a fake famous Uzbek director come to town to save their jobs by staging a modern version of Ukraine-born Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol’s obscure mid-19th century play The Government Inspector.

The narrative, expressed in film terms, is Tootsie meets Waiting for Guffman; genre wise it’s postmodern radical rewrite meets conservative presentation of an original play ending with, ahem, a musical. Thematically, it’s the faker as artist. But most curious is how all this swearing and a dirty joke about Robert Pattinson and intimately concealed breakfast cereal might fly in a schools matinee.

“I just want an audience to be entertained and engaged,” Stone explains in our interview, “and I want their lives to be represented and celebrated on the stage. I don’t care about the politics of theatre. I think Australian theatre will follow whatever journey it wants to follow based on the personalities of the people who are making the best work.”

There’s an unexpected campness to Stone’s latest production; a satire on improvisation like TV’s Thank God You’re Here. “It’s actually a sitcom,” Stone tells the actors and set designer Ralph Myers. “This is exactly like a sitcom.” A sitcom in which the sly family Stone’s catchphrase is: “We fuck shit up.”

Typically, Stone delivers his plays in a modern idiom with Australian accents so that audience members can empathise. But he toys with the idea of one day making a historical movie. He cites the late Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea, Oedipus Rex and The Gospel According to St Matthew as examples he admires.

“In a filmed version of a period piece, you can, for example, take War and Peace, as it was written by Tolstoy, then you can go through the room where the political conversation is happening, dolly down a hallway where a maid and a manservant are fucking, and kind of go: ‘Oh, the world actually was then the way it is now.’ You can get close to the very realistic details of the way the world was then, whereas on a stage you sit distantly from that other [historical] world.”

In 2014, Stone hopes to fulfil a burning ambition to direct a feature film by adapting The Wild Duck – with a new title, as yet undecided – and has a distributor and, he hopes,  is close to financing, if he can attract a few guaranteed box-office names. Financing will determine in which country the film, in a contemporary setting, will be shot.

On the Malthouse stage, Gareth Davies delivers a line about a “fag”, and Stone tells the actors to react with disapproval. When he was a child, Stone recalls being driven somewhere by his father, and yelling “poofter” at another driver who cut them off. Stuart Stone sternly introduced the topic of homosexuality to his son, and told Simon why it was “never, ever” okay
to use a word like that.

If the loss of the father were portrayed in one of his son’s plays, it would be stage-ready brief, and unexpected. Father and son go to a public swimming pool. Father is pulled from the pool after a heart attack. Son sees frantic efforts to pump his father’s chest. “I genuinely believe that artists are made through a moment of – for lack of a better word; I’m not asking for empathy when I use this word – suffering,” says Stone when asked what weight a writer should put on that life event.

“Most of the artists I have met have had a moment of suffering in their life that drives them to see the world the way they see the world and to celebrate life the way they celebrate life. Because their art has been a way of overcoming the setbacks.”

As Stone prepares to begin his European venture by directing his own Medea for the Toneelgroep Amsterdam theatre company in the Netherlands at the end of the year, he’s looking forward to the long-haul flight in an “excited, nervous” way. The question Stone and Barclay are asking themselves is whether Barclay will move to Europe, too. Stone intends to be back in Australia intermittently from 2015 to 2017. “We will find a solution,” he says. “We just have to find a way of dealing with it.”

Up on stage, Gareth Davies walks through a door and halts the farce. “Simon just quit,” he says, deadpan, and the stage revolves 180 degrees to transition into the next scene.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 28, 2014 as "Rewriting history". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Sydney-based arts writer and the author of Gay: The Tenth Anniversary Collection.

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