I’ve been looking forward to Barney Norris‘ new play ever since I caught his acclaimed four-hander Visitors at the Bush Theatre last year. The play, which centred on an elderly couple dealing with the devastating consequences of dementia, affected me deeply. Partly, that was because of my own family’s experience with my father’s recent post-operative delirium, but mainly it was because of the play’s portrayal of lifelong love and unbearable loss.
I was far from alone in being impressed. Visitors won Barney both the Critics’ Circle and Off West End Awards for Most Promising Playwright, as well as nominations at the Evening Standard and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Awards.
Like Visitors, Barney’s new offering Eventide is: set in rural England, directed by Alice Hamilton, produced by Up in Arms (the touring company co-founded by Barney and Alice) and premiering at London’s Arcola Theatre, where it faces critics tonight (25 September 2015).
When I pinged Barney a few questions ahead of Eventide‘s opening, I was delighted to get reams of his beautifully written insights back. Which, quite frankly, I couldn’t bear to cut or deny you. So here’s the first of my Barney Norris two-hander – including his life’s ambition to become artistic director of Salisbury Playhouse. Check back next week for the second instalment, which includes thoughts on his mentor Peter Gill and his forthcoming debut novel.
How do you feel about returning to the Arcola after your success there with Visitors?
I’m very proud to be coming back to the Arcola. [Artistic director] Mehmet Ergen commissioned Eventide on the press night of Visitors, backing me to the hilt, and the whole Arcola team has done that for Up In Arms in the eighteen months since. That’s what you need to work: the confidence that comes from someone taking the giant leap of believing in you. That’s how things become possible.
Everyone in Up In Arms was very keen to consolidate our success last year by keeping as many of the factors of our last project in place for this next project as well, so getting to work in the same space, and one of our favourite spaces, was great news. It’s exciting to be part of this programme and playing for these audiences again too. The Arcola is about socially conscious, intelligent theatre, and discerning audiences.
It’s great company to keep, and the theatre has had an incalculable effect on my development and the development of Up In Arms. They gave us a gig. That made everything possible. Now they’re co-producing our work and that makes growth and progress possible. Their taste and values have hugely informed our own consciousness of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. People should write books about the role this theatre plays in forming the personalities of generation after generation of new theatremakers.
Visitors was inspired in part by your grandparents. Who or what has inspired the characters in Eventide?
While we were putting Visitors together, I worked in a pub called The Cricketers in the village of Tangley in Hampshire. I met an amazing community of people there, who I miss now I’m living in London for work reasons, and I wanted to write about them as a way of spending time with them again, really.
From that point of embarkation, Eventide sails some distance into the realms of imagination. But that pub, my pub, is run by one of the most articulate thinkers I’ve had the pleasure of being out-argued by, and my Dad, a church organist among other things, drinks there, and Mark, the younger character in the play, does jobs that have all been done by members of my family or by me, so there’s a lot of portraiture there again.
“I wanted to take elements of lives that had mattered to me and use them to tell a larger story about a culture I come from, and love, and believe is receding ever so gradually from view.”
I wanted to take elements of lives that had mattered to me and use them to tell a larger story about a culture I come from, and love, and believe is receding ever so gradually from view. So I took the best of it, mixed in a bit of the worst of it, and I hope that will be a way of asking what we’re losing and what is changing as we say goodbye to this world. I’m saying too much in this answer, I know; I’m exceeding the parameters of the question – I think it’s because I’m worried my old boss at The Cricketers would stop serving me if he thought John in Eventide was supposed to be a portrait of him!
Tell me a little about your research and writing process for Eventide.
The texture of the play is clotted together from lived experience over years. It coalesced as an idea for a play in a performance of Visitors, halfway through the Arcola run. I was sitting by the tech box watching the play and I started imagining these three figures circling each other, avoiding each other, shy of each other but also wanting to talk. I thought at first it was two people incapable of action, and a third who sailed between them and made a conscious action in the play while the others couldn’t find a way to live deliberately. I’ve realised since that wasn’t the whole truth, but that was the start.
I wrote a first draft in 2014 and we workshopped the play in December 2014, while Visitors was opening at the Bush. At that point, the idea of the play being set on two days, a year apart, and made of four scenes, depicting morning and evening on those two days, clarified. The show organised itself around that structure from there, and I focused on trying to use that to say something about the falling-away-ness of life, the sense of experience as an endless waterfall of endings, of things happening for the last time without you being able to control that process.
We continued to engage with different actors to get input on specific character aspects as the play grew, Alice and myself always arguing the toss over how it was growing. (Alice Hamilton, my co-artistic director at Up In Arms, is the best dramaturge I know, rigorous and hugely demanding and specific, it makes her a great new writing director).
Finally, as rehearsals started, I found myself reading books about Thomas Hardy, and it was like the answer to a detective story. I realised what I’d been excavating backwards was his own obsession with finding the balance between fate and character (time passing and events happening) in determining what happened to a person’s life. I used to say, very glibly, that I wanted to use writing to redraw the map of what it was like to live in the south west of England because no one had refreshed the page since Hardy. I think that sounds a bit ambitious and gauche now, but I certainly feel in conversation with his work a great deal of the time, as I feel I’m in conversation with Seamus Heaney in this play as well.
Both plays have been produced by your company Up in Arms, which has as its mission to bring news of life in rural England ‘back to the capital’. What do you mean by this and why is it important?
We also spread whatever news there is to break as far as we can round the country, too. We think it’s important because, quite simply, I don’t recognise almost any aspect of the mainstream culture of this country as being meaningfully representative of almost everyone I know. I basically think a lot of the formative influences on all our lives will be revealed in time to have been pretty shoddy early drafts at serious, grown-up ways of being.
For example, in the face of the UKIP vote, we must surely recognise that our attempts to create a society where people can be whoever they want could do with attention. And indeed, there are complex and nuanced debates going on around the UK about the way multiculturalism, which should have created a glorious proliferation of cultural influences, has actually lead to a vaguely resentful homogenising of cultures in place after place. What needs emphasising is the glory of cultural distinctiveness and variation, not the ability of all the different ideas in the world to be blended into one flavourless smoothie.
“Urbanisation and internet culture has led to an anti-enlightenment monoculture, which seems, on innumerable occasions to me, to be defined by the lowest tastes, the easiest options, the least challenging philosophies”
I feel the same about urbanisation and internet culture. It’s actually led to an anti-enlightenment monoculture, which seems, on innumerable occasions to me, to be defined by the lowest tastes, the easiest options, the least challenging philosophies. Channeling all human experience through a few virtual megaliths has narrowed that experience immeasurably.
So Up In Arms is about doing something different, because before all this nonsense got invented, there was already an art form which was a much more exploratory space in which to engage with the world than a computer screen can ever be: theatre. Our project is about being particular, and actually representing the truth of people’s lives, in a medium where ad breaks can fuck off, and profit is not the priority because we, as a society, have collectively agreed to have an Arts Council and support art, and where the ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ happen in a more sophisticated way because the medium is sophisticated.
We think that’s socially valuable. By looking at the details of a culture, we might diagnose its ills; we might also inculcate a habit of paying respect to the particularities of different cultures, which would be a novelty on our troubled islands, wouldn’t it? And we might also encourage people to take that attentiveness into their own lives, to think about the particularities of how they themselves are living.
What are your future plans for Up in Arms?
Up in Arms is on the precipice of something very exciting, I think. We’re about to co-produce our first play not by me with a big London theatre, and take that show to more mid-scale venues than we’ve ever played before, so that feels like a huge adventure and very real progress.
Producing another writer will emphasise that we haven’t just been doing a certain writer’s plays to date; we’ve been doing a certain type of play, it’s the aesthetic we’ve been working on, not the individual. We’re also starting to work with other new writers whose way of seeing feels like it rhymes with ours, in order to start speaking up for more of the world than just the places I’ve visited and keep growing how much we have to say.
“We’re also starting to work with other new writers whose way of seeing feels like it rhymes with ours, in order to start speaking up for more of the world than just the places I’ve visited”
We’re working on a new play from Bea Roberts, whose play And Then Come the Nightjars has just been nominated for six Offies at Theatre 503. I believe Bea is as funny, soulful and deliciously authentic as any voice to have come out of the Southwest in a long time, the real deal, someone we’re very proud wants to work with us. And we’re also working on a play about Labour politics in Delhi with the American sociologist Monica Prasad, a play we found in a submissions pile that has intelligence and heart like you wouldn’t imagine, a thrilling discovery.
At its heart, we all think of Up in Arms more as a band than a theatre troupe, making one album after another. What we’re really excited about doing is continuing to work together as a collective of friends who will fight for each other to make the best work we can.
And what about your next play?
We’re also starting to develop a new play by me in collaboration with our highest-profile venue partners yet, and, having achieved our first five-year plan, we’re establishing the parameters of a second one. One day we want Up in Arms to have something to say to someone every night of the year, to always have a show open; that would be our dream. So we’re working out how we achieve that and it’s a massive challenge but hugely invigorating.
Having said all that, my next play actually looks set to be with someone else! This spring I made a play for Salisbury Playhouse, Every You Every Me, and it was a wonderful experience. Now I’m writing something else for Gareth Machin, the artistic director there, which I hope he’ll want to do.
“There are two ways of using theatre to be socially valuable. One is to tour and spread a message as widely as you can. The other is to root yourself deep into a particular community”
In future, I hope to be able to work with lots of different creative people I admire, but Up In Arms is my home and my favourite artists and the reason I make work, so I’ve been very gentle about expanding beyond that environment. I wanted to start that process by writing for Salisbury because it’s my home, my theatre, and because it serves the community I’d most love to speak to.
There are two ways of using theatre to be socially valuable, I think. One is to tour, and spread a message as widely as you can, and connect the whole country through showing them the same show. The other is to root yourself deep into a particular community, and seek to become both a focus for and an expression of a specific place and set of people. Doing that at Salisbury Playhouse has always been a dream for me, and I hope in due course, once I’ve proved what I’m capable of with Up in Arms and when the job comes up, of becoming that theatre’s artistic director, and committing myself to delighting and provoking that community. For now, though, singing for them feels like an amazing thing to do, so I’m hoping Gareth will go for the play I’ve written.