“I’m at that age,” says Simon Stephens. “When I look in the mirror, I see my dad looking back at me. And whenever I go back to my home town, I realise Stockport’s thumbprints are all over me.”Where we come from, how we are fathered, and how both contribute to our identity is the subject of Fatherland, a new verbatim play about to open at the Royal Exchange. The piece, part of the Manchester international festival, is the work of three men – playwright Stephens, musician Karl Hyde from Underworld, and Frantic Assembly director Scott Graham – two in their mid-40s, one 60 and also fathers themselves. “It’s called Fatherland, not Fatherhood, although it’s a lot about that too,” says Stephens. “It acknowledges that who and where we come from shapes us, whether we are still living close by, or have run as far away as possible.”
Which is pretty much what Stephens, Graham (from Corby) and Hyde (near Kidderminster) have all done. Hyde says he couldn’t escape fast enough. But collaborating on Fatherland has made them realise that, while you can take the boy out of the home town, you can’t take the home town out of the man he grows into.
“It strikes me,” says Stephens, “that the political rift of our time is no longer between the right and the left, or the working class and the middle class. It is between people who live a mile away from their parents – and people who are happy to be in London or Berlin or Tokyo. I’ve spent a lot of time travelling the country, going to Redditch where my mum now lives, and doing workshops in Newcastle and Sunderland. It made me realise the rest of England isn’t like London.”
Initially, the idea was that the three collaborators should return to their home towns and interview their contemporaries, the now middle-aged men whose eternally young faces stare out from old school photographs. But this was quickly broadened to include much younger and older men – perhaps because, as Stephens says, there might be limited audience patience for “a bunch of middle-aged men talking about football and how they can’t talk to their dads”.
There is an element of that, though. Much of Graham’s vision for the show came from an unlikely source: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the 2009 animated movie. As Graham explains, it features a machine called the Monkey Thought Translator that, towards the end of the film, gives a father – unused to expressing his emotions – a moment of eloquence.
“I think of the entire show as being like the Monkey Thought Translator,” says Graham. “It is a way of accessing all these stories that lie submerged. Lots of the people we interviewed found it quite an emotional experience. It’s been emotional for us too.”
What none of them anticipated was that their own experiences would become so deeply woven into the fabric of a piece featuring verbatim text, movement and what Hyde describes as “21st-century folk songs” . Graham mentions another influence: Salvador Dali’s painting Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Metres Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
“It’s only when you take a step back from all the individual stories that you get an image of what fatherhood can be. The interviews were incredibly raw and revealing. They unearthed such conflicted and unresolved relationships. There was so much pride, love and anxiety.”
Fatherland became the story of three men called Scott, Simon and Karl searching for the stories of England’s fathers and sons. “Rehearsing the scenes with our characters has been one of the most dislocating experiences of my life,” says Stephens, “not least because the character of Simon – beautifully played by Ferdy Roberts – is such a twat.”
Graham adds: “When we listened to the interviews with each other, suddenly it became obvious why we make the work we do. Simon probably wouldn’t be the writer he is without a particular image that sits in his history – and one of Karl’s earliest memories has shaped everything he has ever created.”
For Stephens, putting themselves into the play eased one of his concerns over verbatim theatre, a form about which he feels “deeply suspicious”. He thinks there is a dishonesty on the part of theatre-makers if they fail to acknowledge, in verbatim shows, that interviewers were present as these words were first spoken, and affected everything that transpired.
“Why not dramatise that interaction?” he says. “London Road and Black Watch, two verbatim shows that interest me most, are completely fearless about exposing the set-up and structures.”
All three say their relationships with their own children differ markedly from how their fathers were with them. Graham’s father has never been tactile, but he cuddles his own kids “to the point they have to beat me off”. Stephens, whose father died when he was still in his 20s, says that having kids has been the “knife in the back” that has driven him to keeping writing and pay the mortgage, but they stop him from being lazy in other ways. “They give me notes on my plays. Mostly that what I’ve written is not as good as Punk Rock.”
It will be interesting how this next generation respond to Fatherland. “At one point,” says Stephens, “we wondered about interviewing each other’s kids to see what they thought we were really like.”
“That can be the sequel,” says Graham.