Director Simon Stone: ‘My heroes are women’


Simon Stone does things differently. As a young director he was described as the enfant terrible of Australian theatre. He’s 38 years old now so no longer an “enfant”, while his reputation has spread far beyond Australia and beyond theatre, too, into film and opera. But a few days before interviewing him, I overhear two members of his latest ensemble discussing how disconcerting it is to work with him. They’ve not experienced anything like it, they say. They’re never quite sure when rehearsals will begin, because he spends every morning writing that day’s scenes.

Can this really be any more than an excuse for being a chronic oversleeper, I ask, when we meet after his sixth day of rehearsals for his version of Phaedra at the National Theatre. He laughs and says that this very morning he was up early writing with his five-month-old daughter on his knee. “And she kept just sort of typing, with me having to correct the typos that she was making.” The point, he adds, is not to put actors on the spot, but to enable them to collaborate in the creation of the text from day to day through their improvisations in the rehearsal room.

It’s not that he’s writing a new play, but as anyone lucky enough to have seen his electrifying production of Yerma in 2016 will tell you, his stock in trade is to so totally reconceive old ones that he might as well be. For Yerma, at the Young Vic, he teamed up with the actor Billie Piper to present Lorca’s Andalucian peasant girl as a modern woman driven mad by her inability to conceive, despite multiple rounds of IVF. Two years earlier at Ivo van Hove’s Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, he reimagined Medea as a biochemist with two children and a cheating husband who not has only deserted her for a younger woman but has taken credit for all of her research.

Billie Piper in Yerma at the Young Vic in 2016.
Billie Piper in Yerma, 2016. Photograph: Young Vic

So what will he do with Janet McTeer as Phaedra, the Cretan princess who was married to Theseus and whose tragedy was to fall in love with her stepson Hippolytus? It’s a myth that drops like a plumb line through millennia, from Sophocles and Euripides in ancient Greece, to Seneca in Rome, Racine in 17th-century France and any number of 20th-century interpreters, each of whom have brought the preoccupations of their own times and places to bear on it.

Stone will use it to pull aside the invisibility cloak that enfolds women as they slide towards the menopause, in one of the great cultural injustices of the modern age. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to and reflecting on postmenopausal women who feel eradicated,” he says. “They realise they’re not being seen any more, and that their sexuality has been deleted from the public eye. There have, of course, been all sorts of hormonal changes, but their sexuality doesn’t feel like it has diminished, and in some cases it’s increased. But that feels very at odds with the way we talk about potency. And that word in itself has implications of reproductivity in it, so in some ways it can’t even be applied metaphorically to a woman who is no longer capable of reproduction.”

Janet McTeer in rehearsals for Phaedra at the National.
Janet McTeer in rehearsals for Simon Stone’s new production of Phaedra at the National. Photograph: Johan Persson

Isn’t it astonishing, he adds, that even in the modern world the sexual narrative is still somehow linked to heterosexual reproduction. “But of course, reproduction is inherently heterosexual, in its cliched, old-fashioned connotation. So it all becomes very heteronormative and very, very patriarchal, just in the casual way that that world talks about and represents and celebrates sexuality in 50-plus women.”

Talking to Stone is an unusual combination of drought and tsunami. He thinks intently, looks pained, and then launches into floods of thought that have clearly burst up from some deep part of himself. Ever since he directed his first play as a 22-year-old actor, he has been drawn to the stories of women, he says. “I think if I were to analyse myself I would say that a lot of it is related to feeling that I can associate emotionally and rationally with the female side of my imagination much more than I do with the male side of my personality.”

He’s aware that in the current culture wars around gender and patriarchal oppression, this is contested territory. “I have long hair but I also have a massive beard and I’m in a heterosexual relationship. It’s really difficult to talk about because it’s such a sensitive topic for so many people for various different reasons. But my heroes are women. And when you’re writing plays with heroes in them, you want to be able to write one that you really respect and admire. I find that easier to do with women than I do with men.”

One result of this, he admits, is that “my men are very attenuated. If you studied all of my plays, you would always see a man who is unresolved, underdeveloped and unfinished, who doesn’t have the paradoxical nuance that his female counterpart has, because that’s my experience of masculinity: it is attenuated.”

He has come to the conclusion that he suffers from gender dyslexia. “I often introduce women as him and men as her, and I used to feel embarrassed by it.” In a bid to explain the origins of this, he tracks back to an early childhood experience in Switzerland, where he was born, one of three children, to a biochemist father and a veterinary scientist mother. He was about five years old, and trailing up the stairs of their apartment block behind his two sisters, when a boy who lived downstairs asked what he was doing with a doll. ”I looked down and realised that the boys in the playground didn’t play with dolls, but in my family all three of us had one of our own.”

When he was 12, his father died suddenly, leaving him in a family of women. The only two men he could stand to be around were a gay uncle and his partner, and as a teenager in Australia he came out as gay himself, “because I thought that was the only way that I could be a man and be as tender, effeminate, expressive, open, carefree as I wanted to be”.

Inconveniently, he kept having dreams about women. Eventually, he says, he had to come out as straight to his gay friends, which was embarrassing in case they thought he had been faking it, but luckily they understood, because “let’s face it, not a lot of guys in Australia in the 1990s would choose to be gay”.

His confusion over his sexuality did not extend to his sense of vocation, which was clear and driven from an early age. Through his teens he read plays voraciously, at a rate of four or five a week; by 15 he had found himself an agent, and by 16 was earning decent money as an actor in TV series and commercials. Drama school, he says, taught him how to behave like a man. “They need men to play male roles, so I kind of took on the physicality that I have nowadays.” But, far from sorting him out, the transformation made him “incredibly boring for about five years. Like, really, really boring. I became one-dimensional and constricted, judging myself before I said anything in case it would come across as camp or, you know, as the person that I actually want to be.”

Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in The Dig.
Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in The Dig. Netflix

At 22, his frustration at the sort of acting roles he was being offered led him to try his hand at directing, and he set up his own company theatre company in Melbourne, the Hayloft Project, launching it with a production of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, and working his way through a European repertoire that included Chekhov, Ibsen and Nikolai Erdman. Simultaneously, Stone says, “through my 20s I was figuring out how to just be me”.

By his early 30s he had arrived where he wanted to be – back in Europe, as a regular director at Theater Basel, in the city where he was born. He made his film directing debut in 2015 with The Daughter, based on Ibsen’s tragedy The Wild Duck, which had become his international calling card when he directed a stage version at Sydney’s Belvoir Street theatre. He went on to make The Dig (2021), starring Carey Mulligan as the landowner whose determination led to the excavation of an Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo.

For the past eight years, Stone has been based in Vienna with his dramaturg wife, Stefanie Hackl, but the couple have recently moved to London with their baby daughter. “I had to keep leaving home to be where I worked. And then I realised that the one place in the world where I probably wouldn’t have to leave home very much is London, because film, theatre and opera are all in the same place.”

In April he will make his Covent Garden debut with a new opera, Innocence, by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, about a school shooting, which premiered at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2021. “‘It’s my opera version of The Lion King. It’s going everywhere in the world,” he says. It extended his collaborative practice into an evolving musical work. “When I started working on the project there was just a libretto, and I hadn’t heard any of it by the time I designed it. Kaija saw the design and then kept writing this miraculous music.”

But first comes Phaedra, a tantalising glimpse of which is offered by a steamy teaser featuring McTeer and Assaad Bouab as versions of Phaedra and Hippolytus. “I was so interested in the idea of a woman who falls in love with a younger man and discovers her desire again – the excitement and rush of such a loss of control, and the idea that you could have a second chance in life,” says Stone. “Of course it’s a crazy act of amour fou, but like all of the Greek myths it’s an exorcism of the self-destructive potential in all of us.”

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