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Yerma director Simon Stone on bringing his radical Medea to London: ‘I don’t make directors’ theatre. That’s a misjudged analysis’

Writer and director Simon Stone. Photo: Jan Versweyveld Writer and director Simon Stone. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

His hit production of Yerma starring Billie Piper caused a stir, now Simon Stone is bringing his radical version of Medea, based on real-life murders, to London. He tells Fergus Morgan how he relishes his artistic freedom

Simon Stone is just 34, but he’s already established himself as one of the most exciting auteurs working in Europe today, a visionary spoken of in the same breath as Ivo van Hove and Katie Mitchell. He’s founded a company, been resident director at big theatres in Sydney and Switzerland, directed several celebrated shows and an award-winning film, and now has the enviable freedom of picking and choosing his projects.

“Fairly early in my career, I had written and directed and acted in plays, written and directed and acted in movies, and directed operas,” says Stone. “So I’m now in a position where it doesn’t feel like there’s a division between those things. That’s the great and privileged place you aim for as an artist, where you have the freedom to choose.”

It means that he can create work not because of a need to earn money or a desperation to keep a career going, “but out of a deeply personal desire to communicate with an audience,” says Stone. “The audience gets the benefit of the privilege of that artist.”

Audiences have certainly benefited from Stone’s striking, modern-day stagings of classic plays. In 2009, the Australian theatre company he founded, the Hayloft Project, put on an updated version of Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf called The Only Child, which won best independent production at the Sydney Theatre Awards.

His first foray into European theatre came with the transfer of another Ibsen adaptation – his 2011 Belvoir St Theatre production of The Wild Duck, which played to acclaim at London’s Barbican in 2014. At Theater Basel in Switzerland, where he was house director from 2015, he directed Angels in America and Three Sisters. That year, his first feature film, The Daughter, starring Geoffrey Rush, was released.

Then came the work he is best known for in the UK – the astonishing adaptation of Lorca’s Yerma, starring Billie Piper, which played at London’s Young Vic to sell-out crowds, returned for another run and then headed to New York. The play won best revival at the 2017 Olivier Awards, with Piper winning best actress.

Yerma review at the Young Vic – ‘a mighty performance from Billie Piper’

Stone is returning to London and the Barbican this month with his 2014 production of Medea, produced with Van Hove’s Dutch outfit Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, previously known as Toneelgroep Amsterdam.

“I’d always been a fan of Ivo’s and a huge fan of the company, and the work that they do,” Stone says of the project’s inception. “Then one day, after one of the previews of a show I was doing in Sydney, I received an email from Ivo asking if I’d consider doing a show in Amsterdam. I wrote back straight away: ‘Yes, absolutely.’

“It was the best email of my life,” he continues. “I was this 29-year-old director, not entirely sure what the next development of my career would be, and then suddenly my favourite theatre company in the world was knocking on the door. That was kind of amazing.”

Billie Piper in Yerma at the Young Vic in 2016. Photo: Johan Persson

His revival of Medea is a radical overhaul. Just as he did with Yerma, Stone entirely rewrote the story, setting it in the modern day and creating a new protagonist by melding together the Medea of the myth, and the real-life American murderer Debora Green, who poisoned her husband and killed her two children in a house fire in 1995.

“I thought we needed to find a contemporary character that felt as brilliant and extraordinary as Medea is in the original myth,” he says. “And this woman, Debora Green, was a brilliant doctor, with a brilliant mind. She really was elite. I thought her story was a great parallel, so I started writing a play about a third person, Anna, who does some things that are similar to Green and some things that are similar to Medea.”

Both shows, Yerma and Medea, also feature extraordinary, award-winning lead performances. Piper won that Olivier, while Marieke Heebink won a Theo d’Or, the Dutch equivalent of an Olivier, in 2015 for Medea.

“I’m interested in creating material for great, raw performances – performances that leave a mark on your soul,” says Stone. “It’s great when you can work with actors that are willing to let go completely.”

He continues: “Very few actors have the technical ability to reach their marks and protect the rhythm of the piece while being out of control. That’s the particular, amazing skill of actresses like Marieke and Billie. They can serve a production at the same time as throwing themselves into the abyss.”

Stone lives in Vienna with his wife, but travels across the world for work. He’s currently in Paris rehearsing for his next show, a reworking of a trilogy of Jacobean revenge plays, set in three different theatres.

His life has always been fairly itinerant. He was born in Switzerland – his parents, from Sydney, took up jobs at a pharmaceutical company in Basel – and his early life was spent in Cambridge, then Melbourne. Despite the blokey Australian accent, he has said he never felt at home in Australia.

“I move around a lot, but I grew up like this,” he says. “I’ve never lived anywhere longer than five years, since I was born. The advantage is that I get to see more cities, more often, and see their cultural scenes develop. The only advantage to staying in one place would be that I was a little less stressed.”

‘London has the most progressive audience in the world. The UK theatre scene is miles ahead’

Of all the audiences in all the cities he works in, he says, he admires London’s the most. “The German-speaking world doesn’t make theatre for diverse audiences, and it doesn’t have diversity in its ensembles, which is completely outrageous. London has the most progressive audience in the world. For me, certainly in the theatre scene, the UK is miles ahead.”

“For all the division we think exists in British society, there is a whole heap of open-mindedness as well,” he adds. “And I’m someone who has travelled the world and has seen how terribly conservative and racist it can be.”

Marieke Heebink and Aus Greidanus Jr in Simon Stone’s production of Medea for Internationaal Theater Amsterdam in 2015

Stone does get frustrated, though, by the distinctions some voices in the UK arts industry make between British theatre and European theatre, between ‘writers’ theatre’ and ‘directors’ theatre’.

He says: “I don’t make ‘directors’ theatre’ – that’s a purely misjudged analysis. People say that any aesthetic newer than the 1950s is immediately ‘directors’ theatre’, but it’s not. It’s just a reflection of the world we live in.

“I would actually say I’m much more traditional, in terms of theatre,” he adds. “For much longer in its history, theatre has looked like my production of Medea: an empty stage, a void, in which people talk to each other. It’s very obtuse to assume that the removal of detail turns something into ‘directors’ theatre’.”

It’s an opinion that ties in with his outlook on making work in general. To him, there are no categories of theatre or hierarchies of different mediums. “All of these dichotomies and categories are completely irrelevant,” he says. “As an artist, you want the ability to express the ideas that are rumbling around inside you. You have to try to find a sense of complete freedom in yourself.

“I’ve chosen to delay film projects because I really wanted to do a play or an opera. That makes me unpopular sometimes, because some people go: ‘Why on earth are you telling me that we can’t make that movie right now? You should just be happy that you’re allowed to make a film.’

“They just don’t get it. They don’t get that I’m not happy if I’m not exploring all of these different universes.”

Medea runs at the Barbican, London, from March 6-9, 2019

Medea review at Festival de Otono, Madrid – ‘Simon Stone’s electrifying reworking’

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