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In Conversation: Heisenberg – The Uncertainty Principle

23 August 2017 by Rebecca Barrett
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We recently were lucky enough to attend a special interview between acclaimed Playwright Simon Stephens and Director Marianne Elliott. Gathered in the Wyndham’s Theatre, we waited to hear more from the pair on their upcoming collaboration, Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle.

The play follows the unexpected relationship between two strangers, played by Kenneth Cranham and Anne Marie Duff. The character’s willingness to embrace something unusual, something they weren’t counting on is a key theme of the play and the pair end up becoming embedded in each other’s lives.

Simon and Marianne hit upon an international success with his adaptation, directed by Marianne, of the best-selling novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It took Broadway and London by storm, earning the production a number of Tony and Olivier awards and years later, the two are still able to find themselves in creative synchronicity with each other.

Having worked with each other several times now, Simon and Marianne appear to have a deep and complementary relationship: his boundless creative energy balances nicely with Marianne’s thoughtful, philosophical yet practical approach. Unknowingly, the pair have actually been in each other’s lives since their teen years, discovering recently that they got on the same bus to school. Their careers now, despite missing each other as teenagers, seem inextricably linked.

Marianne will be directing Heisenberg but is also part of the production company behind it. She had spent 10 years at the National Theatre with Producer Chris Harper, working on incredible shows like War Horse, and now they’re breaking ground on their new theatre production company, Elliott and Harper. Chris commented on the relationship between all three of them.

“Marianne and I decided to leave the National Theatre about a year ago and set up our own company. It was a really exciting opportunity for us to be in charge of our own productions and make the decisions of what shows it is we might want to do and how we might do them.

Simons Stephens, Marianne Elliott and Chris Harper share a joke post-interview.

It was really clear to us that we, having had such a success with Curious Incident, which Marianne directed – without any hesitation we must do a play by Simon Stevens.

This play [Heisenberg], I think, is one of the most moving, beautifully profound pieces of writing I’ve ever read.”

Chris went on to introduce Marianne and Simon, who came together for a lively chat about their relationship, the play and the joy of the unexpected. On his writing process, Simon said, “Ordinarily, I’m a ferocious planner, I plan plays really carefully and with this one I wanted to do something really different. I wanted to try and release the instinctive, to release the unpredictable, to write in a way I’ve not written before. 

In my memory, I wrote at the end of every day rather than the start. I would sit down and I would start writing and allow these characters to explore each other in a way that was really new to me, and there was something about that writing process that also reminded me of the uncertainty principle.”

Simon then asked Marianne about what it is that helps her decide what to direct and what it is about a project that speaks to her. “It can be just the sense of feeling very possessive over a text. You know, you read a text and you just think ‘I never want to see anyone come near this piece other than me’. Like when I read Curious Incident, I had no idea that Simon wanted me to direct it, I really didn’t. I thought I was reading it as a favour and therefore it was very freeing to read because I wasn’t thinking ‘Oh my God, how am I gonna do this?’

I read it [Heisenberg] and I got to the end of it and I felt tremendously moved and very territorial about it and I just didn’t want anyone else to come near it, I just had to do it.”

The theme of control and the giving yourself over to a lack of control seems to be central to the play, as Marianne described. “These characters are in a particular place where they’re desperately trying to control their lives, to create an environment around them where they are able to predict what the next day will be, to control how affected they are by their lives. And control the people around them as well, i.e. he doesn’t have anybody around him because he’s too scared, I think, to feel in close contact with anyone else because people are unpredictable.”

Simons Stephens and Marianne Elliott discuss Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

When discussing the nature of his work, Marianne describes Simon’s characters as being full of sadness and who are looking for ways to move on from that feeling, Simon responds that maybe his characters are optimistic because they face their problems.

“I love what Peter Ustinov said about optimism, he said the only mature response to a world in peril is to be optimistic, that to be pessimistic is immature, it’s kind of waking up in the morning and going ‘Oh no terrible things are happening, I feel really sad’. That actually, optimism is a mature response to the world. That to live with optimism, to look fully in the face of a world of uncertainty and then relish the adventure is exciting.”

On the staging and design of the London production of Heisenberg, Marianne describes the work as being clean, sparse but beautiful, void of other bodies filling spaces. Because of this, it throws up some interesting view points on the work for her as a director. “There’s even a suggestion of are these characters even alive? Are they now? Are they in Heaven? There never seems to be anybody else around but they can be in very busy places like King’s Cross St. Pancras or a shop or a restaurant or a park and yet there seems to be no one else around. There’s something really beautiful and surreal and gorgeous about that. And we were looking at the artist James Turrell and his work with light and gallery spaces and just a way of making sure that the characters were projected forward but in a really glorious way for each different scene.”

Catching Simon by surprise, he replies, “It’s so moving as a writer to hear – I think that, and I’ve written this down as a sentence in a book, so I must mean it. The best director in the world, talking with such care about a play that I’ve written is astonishingly moving.”

You can see Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle in London when it opens at the Wyndham’s Theatre on 3rd October.

Want more? The Monster Speaks! An Interview With Young Frankenstein’s Shuler Hensley.

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