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Thursday, February 17, 2011

A theatre man in a hurry

Cinemimi[Friday February 17,2011]

Director Simon Stone is on the fast track to theatrical success.


"I am the hugest cinema nerd ever," says theatre director Simon Stone, while making a pot of coffee in his tidy Glebe terrace. He points to his bookshelves tightly packed with DVDs (silent Hollywood films, the French New Wave, recent films by Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, to name a few). "You know that book 1000 Films to See Before You Die?" he asks. "I've seen them all and a million others."

Stone is a fast-tracker if ever there was one. As a teenager, he decided he wanted to be an actor. He secured an agent at 15 and read the complete works of Shakespeare in chronological order. The following year, he read all of Plutarch's Lives, prior to playing Antony in his high school's Antony and Cleopatra. He watched 15 films a week. Sometimes more.

"I can absorb a million topics voraciously," he says. "But only if it interests me and it's something I need to know. I was hopeless at school, completely abnormal. My brain just didn't seem to work like the other kids' brains."

Advertisement: Story continues below Now 26, Stone is the new resident director at Belvoir after four years as founder and artistic director of the adventurous Melbourne-based theatre company, The Hayloft Project. He is a seasoned actor (in films including Jindabyne, Kokoda and Balibo), playwright (Thyestes, The Only Child) and adaptor (Platonov, Spring Awakening). Married at 24 and recently relocated to Sydney, Stone is a man in a hurry.

At home, where he lives with his wife Jessamy Dyer (a former actor, now a speech pathologist), he is confident yet self-effacing. He has no problem talking about himself and is seldom stuck for words. He has an entire wall of bookshelves dedicated to play scripts as well as books on architecture and philosophy. Framed posters of works by artists Max Ernst and Oskar Kokoschka hang on the walls. "I hope they don't make me look like a wanker," he says. "I grew up in Europe and German was my first language so I'm attracted to European art."

Today he is making 11th hour changes to The Wild Duck, which, at the time of our interview, opens in just under two weeks. Stone's script is a reinvention of Henrik Ibsen's 1884 play, using six of its central characters and the same events but turned inside out and reassembled into an entirely new play set in the present day (see box).

In May, he will direct Bertolt Brecht's first play, Baal, for the Sydney Theatre Company, a work Stone describes as "extraordinary poetry". In this case, he will leave the text largely untouched but give the play a radical new staging, which includes asking the cast of six women and three men to perform much of the play naked. His third main stage offering this year is Neighbourhood Watch, a new comic play by Melbourne writer Lally Katz, written for Robyn Nevin and opening in July at Belvoir.

Stone has a reputation for taking big theatrical risks, often writing and making changes right until the play's opening night – and beyond. Actors he has worked with say his process is both "terrifying" and "oddly thrilling".

"I don't want to make adaptations that are simply making the text more speakable or relevant," he says. "When I create a new play I take the same subject matter and reflect on it for the new world. I'm looking for new ways of telling old stories."

Stone read all of Ingmar Bergman's screenplays and re-watched all of his films in preparation for The Wild Duck: "It reminded me how to write a play about very dark times."

For such a young man, Stone has come through dark times of his own. In part, they drive his intense work ethic.

Born in Basel, Switzerland, he is the youngest of three children. His parents were from Sydney but took up job offers at a pharmaceutical company just months before he was born. ("I wasn't planned, I think I came along at an inconvenient moment," he says.) His father, Stuart Stone, was a biochemist and his mother, Eleanor Mackie, a veterinary scientist.

He grew up speaking Swiss German, raised part-time by a local woman who lived in the family's apartment block. The Stones then moved to Cambridge, England, when he was seven, where his father ran the laboratory in the university's biochemistry and haematology department. His mother commuted to London to work at the University of London's Royal Veterinary College. Stone attended the local public school until his parents pulled him out and sent him to an exclusive private school. He was running amok.

"I was uncontrollable. I misbehaved terribly, stole things, had a terrible temper," he says. "I was learning English and I had a weird accent and I hated school. So my parents thought I needed more discipline."

He flourished in the sporting realm, taking up competitive swimming, rugby, cricket and cross-country running. But he still copped a lot of detentions. The whole family – he has two older sisters – did swimming training together every morning and on Sundays they went to church.

"Every weekend was about sport and church, there was little else," he says. "Although when we went on holiday to Europe, my Dad would take us to Vienna and buy standing tickets for the opera every single night. I was 11 and that was his idea of a holiday."

When Stone was 12, his father was offered the position of head of the molecular biology and biochemistry department at Monash University and the family moved to Melbourne. "He was 44, ridiculously young for a position like that. He was hanging out with Nobel-Prize winners. He was a real Aussie bloke from Gosford who swore like a trooper. But at the same time he was a human-rights activist who loved art and philosophy and he taught me from a very young age to be completely liberal minded and not judgmental."

Within six months, his father was dead of a massive heart attack. He was 45. Stone witnessed it.

He and his father went to swimming training together at 5.30am that day. Stone had slept through his alarm – again – and the pair had argued fiercely about how late they were before getting in the water.

After a short time, Stone turned his head and noticed a man being pulled out of the pool and two other swimmers performing CPR. At first he was excited by the drama, thinking it was someone else. He carried on swimming.

When the head coach told Stone his father had taken a bad turn, he remembers dropping his flippers, kickboard and pool buoy – almost as if it were a movie scene. "I remember hearing them hit the floor," he says.

Feelings of profound guilt emerged soon after and Stone harbours them to this day. "I was being such an ungrateful child," he says. "Maybe our argument brought on the heart attack. I don't know but I might blame myself forever. You'll never be able to change the moment before you lose someone."

Stone says his father's death has left him with a sense of limited time. "It has made me very driven to get a lot of work done in a short period of time," he says.

"His death actually gets to me even more now that I'm older and married and I have a real job. I now have a body of work that is a more sophisticated reflection of humanity. He would never have wanted to miss any of it. I have a great sadness about losing my father."

Stone pauses, taking a sip of his now cold coffee. "People become more extraordinary after they have died. I wouldn't necessarily be trying to impress him if he were alive. But now that he is dead, I am definitely trying to impress him."

Former Belvoir artistic director Neil Armfield says the thing that sets Stone apart from other directors of this generation is his courage. "For someone so young to throw himself against such great works with such personal and highly theatrical vision is amazingly brave," he says. "You can feel the energy radiating out of him."

Stone says fearlessness is something he's working on. "I've started making work from a place that I dream in, a place that drives me as a human being. I know some people might utterly hate my work and some shows will be big failures but they will be difficult, juicy, complicated and challenging works where I took big risks," he says.

"I used to think that you made avant-garde theatre in little steps. But now I know you have to take big steps in everything you do and be utterly rigorous about it. You have to be playful and follow your instincts. You can't be scared or making compromises. If you can't be a polemicist, you can't be a true artist."

The Wildest Duck
There isn't a word of Ibsen in Simon Stone's new take on The Wild Duck. It is a new play. "It's almost not really a play at all," Stone says. "It's more like an endless dolly shot of these characters in the moments Ibsen put them in."

Ibsen's drama is five acts set in two locations. Stone's version is made up of 36 scenes in multiple locations. "The play follows the laws of theatre rather than fate. The individual characters' stories are fully fleshed out in ways that Ibsen's were not," Stone says. "They are leading their own lives when they are drawn into the whirlpool of this tragedy."

The production will be set in a glass box, like a terrarium. The actors, including Ewen Leslie, Toby Schmitz, Anita Hegh and John Gaden, will be miked and won't be able to see the audience through the reflective glass. Extreme blackouts punctuate the staging. "It's voyeuristic. It will feel like the audience is watching real life," Stone says. "The actors will be letting you watch very private moments where all the characters are recollecting what happened and what their part in the tragedy might have been. They each have a story and they are all part of a larger story."

The Wild Duck runs until March 27 at Belvoir.

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