Dynamic theatre director Simon Stone has turned to film. And there’s no looking back
Simon Stone may be based in Switzerland, but he remains Australia’s most provocative, and arguably its most talented, theatre director. After establishing The Hayloft Project theatre company in Melbourne in 2007, the young director in equal measure enthralled and enraged viewers with his explosive adaptations for the country’s main stages of venerated texts — including August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck — before moving to Europe to further his career.
But theatre, he says, was only ever a “distraction from cinema”.
It’s a bold admission from the 31-year-old Stone, and one that may raise the odd eyebrow — and even a laugh — in the local theatre industry where he made his name. Yet it’s a statement that appears to be borne out by his debut feature film, The Daughter.
This loose adaptation of his acclaimed stage production of The Wild Duck features Paul Schneider as a young man returning to his family’s Tasmanian home, the site of an event that changed him and others many years before. It’s a beautiful drama with a cast including Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill, Anna Torv, Odessa Young and Ewen Leslie, and is the work not only of a talented artist, but of a cinephile seemingly steeped in the formalism of European cinema. And the early critical response suggests it won’t be Stone’s last film.
When Review suggests that he comes across as a cinephile, the director leans forward, expands his striking blue eyes and grins widely, as if meeting a fellow traveller.
“Yes,” he says. “How many years have we got to talk to each other?”
He recalls writing short film scripts as a teenager and keenly imagining making them at some point, before realising it would be a good idea to try directing actors first.
“So I put on a play as an experiment, as a test of how I related to performers and to practise the relationship with performers,” he says of his foray into the theatre. “Then I got sidelined by the fact that theatre was then this suddenly exciting thing for me and people seemed to enjoy me making it.”
Enjoy it audiences did. Acclaimed productions at the Malthouse Theatre (Seneca’s Thyestes), Melbourne Theatre Company ( The Cherry Orchard) and Belvoir ( The Promise, Miss Julie) — and some contentious authorial credits for his plays — meant Stone’s reputation as theatre’s star director rose rapidly, notwithstanding the growing presence of a new generation of accomplished stage directors including Eamon Flack, Lee Lewis, Ralph Myers, Sarah Goodes and Kip Williams.
It’s hardly scientific, but Stone’s prominence in the zeitgeist is telling: type “Australia’s best theatre directors” into Google and there’s Stone, second on the list, between Michael Blakemore and Neil Armfield. For what it’s worth, he’s ahead of Gale Edwards and John Bell and is considerably younger than all of them. Who knows how Google’s algorithms work, but that placement is hardly a glitch.
Stone has followed Blakemore, Barrie Kosky and Benedict Andrews to Europe. He was born in Basel, Switzerland, before moving to Australia as a child, and is ensconced at present as inhouse director at the Theater Basel.
He may be focused on film, but theatre will pull him back. He’s too good for it. Belvoir St Theatre executive director Brenna Hobson laughs — as do others — when told Stone says he only really ever had eyes for cinema.
“I think Simon might be selling himself slightly short there,” she says of the man who was resident director at Belvoir for three years. “One of the things about Simon is he has enormous capacity and a low boredom threshold, so once he conquered theatre it was clear he’d move on to something else.
“He’s too good a theatre director to have just used it as a stepping stone, though.”
One of Stone’s striking attributes, Hobson adds, is his zest for life and voracious consumption of culture, be it the theatrical canon or cinema’s broad history. It provides the energy that fuels his rich artistic endeavours.
Stone recalls as a child leaving video stores with arms full of rented films and from the age of 15 watching up to five films a day. An early fling with acting allowed him the time to consume films, and he did so, heading to Melbourne’s Cinematheque — as so many artistic strivers in the southern capital do — every Wednesday.
He chuckles as he remembers one night taking a date there to sit through Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, a 1965 drama by Sergei Parajanov set in Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains. “It was an incredibly obscure film [ and I was] thinking that would make me look quite intellectual,” he says. “I was quite young — 17 — and she was five years older than me and I thought this would be really impressive to her.”
His date fell asleep, while Stone thought it was one of the greatest films he had seen, sparking his ongoing obsession with cinema from the former Soviet Union.
“The core of my existence for the past 15 years has been going on the internet and trying to find the obscurest of the obscure DVDs from the other side of the world, to make sure I see everything under the sun,” he says, smiling.
Cinema would find him. He was one of only two stage directors (Bangarra’s Stephen Page was the other) invited to direct a short film for the ambitious omnibus of Tim Winton short stories, The Turning. Stone’s film, Reunion,
THE CORE OF THE STORY IS STILL HENRIK IBSEN’S
SIMON STONE ON THE DAUGHTER
about a stilted Christmas Day turning into a romp, featured Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Robyn Nevin and was shot by Academy Award winner Andrew Lesnie.
It was a high-profile grounding for producers Nicole O’Donohue and Jan Chapman, producer of The Piano and Lantana, who asked him to adapt his production of The Wild Duck for the screen.
It made sense; the Belvoir play was a commercial and artistic smash and has been performed every year for the past five years, including seasons in Europe and next week at the Perth International Arts Festival.
His production modernises Ibsen’s tale, placing his tense ensemble behind glass and giving a visceral power to the Norwegian playwright’s 1884 piece about a fateful homecoming.
Stone’s first draft for his producers was typically, well, Stone. He removed all the dialogue from the play, essentially, because cinema is about what one sees and hears, not the words.
It was a reactive, necessary reduction because, he says, his tight stage play was “just words”.
“That particular play was a group of people standing in a space just talking to each other,” he says, noting one of the production’s virtues was that “its sparseness was everything”.
“Everything that people said to each other was the meat of the entire production and in a play that was about the relative merits of truth telling, that was a very important kind of thing to focus it just on these words that people are saying to each other.”
That has less value on screen, though, because “what screen does so wonderfully is kind of observe people’s existence”.
“In an ensemble drama, the great value of that was being able to observe people in their own environments as much as possible and then juxtapose those environments with each other,” Stone says.
Consequently, as recollections and revelations rock the gathering of a logging family (headed by Rush’s Henry Neilson) in Tasmania, Stone used editing in a manner he couldn’t on stage, representing time’s fluidity and the overlapping and interconnections between every character’s realities during this fateful week in their lives.
“You can use techniques that are just not available to you on stage, to explode the notion of how people’s fates are intertwined and as much as they may believe they’re in control of their destiny, their destiny is in control of them in some ways,” he says.
The Daughter is a confident debut. Clearly, Stone’s experience with actors in theatre — whether or not used as a stepping stone — helps him obtain smart performances as a screen director, for a naturalistic, subtle Australian film.
Stone concedes his direction was as much about what he didn’t do, however.
“I had been dying to have a go at making a film for so long,” he says. “One of the big challenges was actually going: ‘ Simon, you need to do what’s right for this movie and don’t try to make all of your movies at once.’ Having many, many influences can be a dangerous thing.”
His influences sparked thought and investigation, though, not mimicry. One appreciates his peers’ admiration for the director’s enthusiasm and how he lights up rooms with his gangly physicality and vibrant ideas when he talks of film. He vividly explains obsessing about how cinematography and editing are used “to express the inexpressible and kind of move beyond the literal into something more metaphorically universal”.
Consequently, those lucky enough to have seen The Wild Duck on stage will see a very different story on film. It is unlike most Australian films, with its low-tempo burn, and it drops the anger and intensity that made The Wild Duck so bracing a theatre experience
“What cinema does is you slowly kind of get to know the characters and you let the characters’ situations wash over you, and you don’t use language as an argumentative tool, you use it as a tool just for the characters,” he says.
“Language in a play is all that the audience has to rest their experience of the character’s world on. They have to imagine everything based on the words they’re hearing.
“In film, everything else is coloured in, it’s all there. And so the hammer blows of exposition that were words in the play had to kind of slowly fall into the world of the characters in film. And nobody loves a film where people are talking nonstop. You want to be overwhelmed by the visual element as well.”
Stone also wanted to embrace the genre of “return”, of a lead character returning to a familiar place and people who have changed beyond recognition. After the estranged son, Christian (Schneider), is summoned home to be best man at his father Henry’s marriage to his former housekeeper (Torv), Christian searches for a sense of meaning in the past and events that completely transformed him, before realising everyone else has essentially forgotten.
“The feeling of that is incredibly important to the film, the feeling of memory, the feeling of ‘I’ve seen this before but now it feels completely different’,” Stone says.
“The melancholy reflection on who we have been as adults and then juxtaposing that against a teenager’s reverie of discovering the world where everything is new and there is no emotional baggage. So the tension between those two things — the melancholy of the messed-up baggage adults have and the yearning and surprising reality of a teenager [Young’s Hedvig] — is where the film lives for me.”
The irony, of course, is the man who was the lightning rod three years ago for a discussion, or argument, about the arrogance of attaching authorial credits to classic texts has made his Ibsen play — once credited as “By Simon Stone with Chris Ryan after Henrik Ibsen” — very much his own.
The authorial debate, which began in Review in 2013, split the nation’s theatre industry. “Adaptations” v “original works”: everyone had an opinion. At the time, Stone told Review of The
Wild Duck: “It’s not Ibsen’s script. It’s my script.” Playwright Andrew Bovell, meanwhile, weighed in with, among other things, the admonition: “Write your own plays and stop effing around with everybody else’s.”
The debate was piffle, Stone says, citing cinema’s history during the silent era, when material was required to sate this new technology. The filmmakers pilfered as many old plays and books for the screen as they could. And Ibsen’s play is very vague, even unrecognisable, source material now.
Stone smiles, although he cautions the film’s credit remains: “Inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s The
“You don’t want to deny that source material is the seed of all the imagination you then have, resulting from that first encounter with the material,” he says.
“And everything that kind of blossoms out of it is still this play a man wrote in Italy somewhere, dreaming of his old Norwegian home, in 1882-83. It’s still the thing that he brought to life.
“There’s still a duck, there’s still this kid who’s shocked and overwhelmed by revelations in her family. There’s still a struggle for a couple to stay together in an incredibly difficult time. The core of the story is still Henrik Ibsen’s.” Stone grins. “His play was the equivalent of the newspaper article to me and it gave me everything I needed to go in a completely different direction,” he says.
Simon Stone in Berlin, left; Ewen Leslie, Odessa Young and Sam Neill in The Daughter, below
Stone’s theatre productions have included, clockwise from left, Neighbourhood Watch; Death of a Salesman; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; The Wild Duck and The Hayloft Project