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Barney Norris’ play Visitors, first performed at the Arcola Theatre in 2011 by his theatre company Up in Arms, has been received with deafening roars of appreciation and lavished with praise. Visitors turns the spotlight onto an aspect of our nation rarely seen in the theatre, exploring the couple’s shared pastoral existence with arresting poignancy and rampant humour. The Culture Trip’s Jamie Moore sat down with Barney to talk theatre, Visitors and society-at-large.
Q: You describe your book To Bodies Gone: the Theatre of Peter Gill as a manifesto of sorts in which you delineate your approach to theatre. How would you summarise what this approach entails?
A: I wanted to use writing about Peter as an allusive method of propounding certain theatrical values that it is quite hard to put into words. I thought if I studied the work of someone whose work embodies those values, it would be an effective way of talking about the kind of work that I love. However, there are ways of putting it into words: I’m interested in a theatre which, instead of being about entertainment and escapism, is about a kind of immersive, deeper engagement with people’s lives, so that we all go to the theatre to think more deeply and more emotionally than we do at any ordinary part of the day. I’m interested in a quietist, relatively social realist theatre that flags up what’s extraordinary about ordinary people’s lives, what’s beautiful about the ordinary world; I think that’s very important to me. And an emotional theatre as well; I think people like to be moved, I think theatre does a very effective job of moving people; we cry more in the theatre that we do at books or movies, I think, so I that’s an important part of what theatre can do. Those were the qualities I was trying to advocate through write about Peter’s work, which does all of those things.
Q: You mentioned in your article in The Independent that there was a particular portrait of England that you hoped to capture in Visitors before it faded into the past – what portrait was that?
A: I think the world is always disappearing, or one person’s world is always disappearing. Ultimately the world only lasts as long as each individual human life, so there’s always a disappearing world somewhere and it never really disappears either. I was interested in looking at the rural culture which Visitors documents, and the social values that I had encountered living in the countryside: the family, non-success-oriented values. In some ways, these values are quite beautiful and exciting, but in are in other ways slightly sad, for example, the lack of aspiration in some rural communities, which is a product of lack of opportunity, so it’s not necessarily a good thing. I didn’t want to record some sort of beautiful, mystical past where everyone was happy, I just wanted to try and put into images a little bit of the world that I had visited through friends, family, grandparents, jobs, of subsistence living up to a point. Not literally subsistence farming, but a life based around values other than the values I encounter in London, which are predicated on growth as an essential human condition. I question these values slightly, or at least in the context of the world I’m from, I don’t recognise growth as the fundamental human condition. I recognise constancy, or ending-ness – that’s not a word but you know what I mean – as a human condition.
Q: You refer to our society’s “highly flammable fixation with growth” in your piece in The Independent. How much do you feel that this ubiquitous obsession with economic growth substantively affects the worldviews and lives of those within our society?
A: The entire basis of our culture, our civilisation, going back hundreds of years is – well, certainly back to the industrial revolution – is predicated on the idea that growth is the goal. That has led to the most extraordinary improvements in living conditions; it’s led to an unimaginable wealth and comfort for masses of people in the world, the lucky ones who were born in the right countries anyway. I think it’s done things for everybody in the world, and it’s sort of a ridiculous thing to try and identify individually because it’s what we are, it’s what we do, Up in Arms seeks to grow, we are a commercial company in that respect. I became interested in the idea because in the context of the last few years, the way the fundamentally capitalist mind-set has affected the welfare state interests me. At a time where there isn’t enough money and therefore cuts must be made, because we have a deficit, what comes under pressure are those things not predicated on growth. There was this extraordinary post-war moment where goodwill triumphed briefly, perhaps that’s an overly negative thing to say about the rest of history, but nonetheless briefly we said that everyone should have healthcare, everyone should have art, and everyone should have health insurance and a pension. I’m talking really about the movement instigated by the Labour party that lasted the whole half of the 20th century, because it was the first Liberal government of the 20th century who introduced insurance and pensions in a meaningful way. So that social rights movement that universal suffrage was part of, was not entirely – or was it? – entirely predicated on growth, because it does not necessarily make as much financial sense to run the NHS as it does to run a series of private healthcare businesses. Now that might not be true if you look at the macroeconomics of it; maybe in the long run, if we keep each other healthy then we all pay in more and we all make more as a result; I don’t know, I’m not an economist. But I feel like there was an altruism to the post-war moment, and the aspirations of the generation who are our grandparents now. I feel like this altruism is particularly threatened in this climate – I think it was Will Hutton in The New Statesman who wrote about the idea that we might want to try and find something other than growth to organise our society around. I think growth is as natural as life, it is what we do, but there do seem to be other things worth focusing on, and there seem to me to be things that are, on some level, altruistic. I think the way the NHS is being dismantled because it doesn’t make the right kind of money, in fact it loses money and doesn’t work is wrong. It should be our job to make it work. We should we proud of it and fight for it, rather than just replacing it with a profitable enterprise.
Q: Perhaps then, one of the things that are subordinated by this primacy our society puts on growth, is love or compassion. Do you think that we live in a society deficient in these things?
A: I think what I’m talking about when I talk of our society’s faults is a lack of empathetic understanding. I think social glue comes out of being able to see into the lives of other people – again, at a philosophical level, can we ever do that? Let’s say yes for now. The empathetic understanding of other lives makes it possible to, for example, donate to charity or set up tax breaks; that at a very simple level is how policy gets made: you look at other people and see what they need, as well as considering what we need. Generally if you are the guy making these decisions, you don’t need as much as other people. So I think that’s very important. I don’t know whether there’s a deficiency in love, I just think that there’s an urgency to take into account the lives of other people. I know that the wealth gap is increasing and is certainly as large as it’s been in a long time, and that social mobility is as low as it’s been for a long time. So I don’t know that we live in a society that is the most equitable it’s ever been. Tony Benn’s death was an interesting opportunity for reflection because one of the problematic consequences of the success of Thatcherism or the success of Freedmanism, perhaps we should say; it was his laissez faire idea – an old idea that was aggressively successful in the ‘80s – sort of produced a militant and unelectable left, which then very beautifully and idealistic in body produced the Liberal Party that split the left vote for a while. Ultimately, this led to the complete abandoning of the whole project of the Labour Party’s project with Blair. Now we have a political system where really, if your fundamental project is to help people who need help, I don’t know who you vote for, I really don’t; I don’t think there is a party that convincingly embodies any kind of “let’s work for the bottom up” mentality about our society any more. So I think that’s why I probably feel that it’s a relatively urgent project: where is the Left? Where is the social project that says, “how can we help people?” I don’t really believe it when Ed Miliband says it, because he’s usually saying it while accidentally advertising The Sun or accidentally insulting someone or whatever. The Labour Party has become such an incompetent machine and looks like a business that’s being run down in order to be sold off; I think that adds to the urgency of the project.
Q: You say these ideas were perhaps what inspired, or what underpin some of what Visitors is about. But do you think its possible to write a good play that intentionally tries to convey a message i.e. one that shows an audience where it might be going wrong and could perhaps change for the better?
I really do think it’s possible, actually. I don’t think Visitors is one of those – I’m not that intelligent and certainly not that politically intelligent; I don’t think I’m that technically gifted a writer, I just sort of clotted together some stories until they lasted long enough. But if you look at Lucy Prebble’s Enron – and again, I don’t know if she really set out to achieve what she achieved – a more beautifully eloquent, concise exploration of why the financial crash happened, would be impossible to imagine; it is so wonderful as a summary. There’s this wonderful moment where they say, “we’ve made a fantastic profit, we’ve made a profit of £400 million but we haven’t got any of the money, we just announced it in advance so there’s nothing.” “Turning toxic mortgages into velociraptors in the basement,” is just such a beautiful thing that no other art form can do. I think the work of David Hare has continually been an eloquent exploration of social issues staged in a way that makes them more immediately accessible than perhaps they are in an intellectualised discourse. Actually another writer who does that is Robin Soans, who is in Visitors. Robin’s work always identifies a vital question, I would say, and finds ways of exploring it. He burrows into social worlds and lifts the stone, as it were; it’s an amazing model for a play that has a definite social project and says something quite consciously. Talking to Terrorists, is the greatest example of this and the message is really simple: we should talk to terrorists; we should understand the lives of others and we might get along a bit better. It is a brilliant achievement, making that a convincing argument on the stage.
Q: And do you ever think there’s a danger that a narrative might suffer as a result of that intention or indeed, that imposing didacticism on the narrative might be of detriment to the quality of the storytelling, and the play as a medium designed to capture the audience’s attention?
A: I think that is also massively true, yes. The examples I’ve given are high watermarks of the style, and I think if you went and read all the plays that were on in the ‘70s when this kind of agitprop, politically driven, socially conscious work was being made, you’d find that nine out of ten of them were pretty ranty and emotionally thin. I kind of think most theatre, well; the average play isn’t transcendentally wonderful, because according to basic mathematical logic, the average play isn’t going to be the best play. Wherever you go: if you go to a world that is convinced that the theatre shouldn’t be a political space, you will find that the majority of the plays are a bit pointless; they are just stories about people doing things and you don’t really know why you’d watch them. You can find that in many theatres around the country, there are plays going on where I think, “you have just told a story about a middle-class marriage, I really don’t know why I just spent £20 on that.” And if you go to a theatre where they believe the theatre is a political, socially active project, you will find that half of them are over-sincere, holier-than-thou, and trying to teach you a broadly left-of-centre orthodoxy, which is totally unintelligent and massively un-interrogated, because actually the most vocal people haven’t read the books, shall we say. I think there is a lot of work in the world, not just in the theatre, that grabs the prevailing orthodoxy and retweets it. I’m being a bit sardonic here; I shall say something positive about someone in a minute.
Q: So if a play told the story of a middle-class couple, it was a compelling and engaging narrative, the audience were invested in the characters and their attention was held for the full hour and a half, two-hours, but there was no discernible message attached to it, other than an appreciation of this real, human relationship and story, would you still consider that not worth watching, or not as important as something with a political message to convey?
A: I love good work, so a play like that would be brilliant. I think that absolutely works. I’d question whether or not Visitors is a political play – it’s got jokes and a bit of sadness in it; really it’s just a play about some people. So I’m arguing a corner that I don’t think I’m really in. I would argue that even to stage a really good entirely non-political play is a political act, because what you do is engage people in someone else’s life, and that’s all that the theatre can really do. I actually think ultimately that anything other than just waking people up and making them think about other people is an ambitious concept because there are books that more subtly advocate the argument for legal reform, than any play can manage. It’s a complex argument and it takes a lot of time to say out loud so a play isn’t going to do all of that. In 2005, there were excellent productions of Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden performed in the main house and studio of the Salisbury Playhouse. I attended these plays time and time again and they were absolutely wonderful productions. I don’t remember from the half a dozen times that I watched – well House at least – thinking about what the plays said about the way we look after the less privileged in society, I just thought it was a wonderful piece of brilliant human drama that was deeply moving, extremely funny and totally inspiring. The question is: in what way is it really non-political to inspire and move people? I think that is relevant as well; I think everything is politics, really. There was that wonderful advert when one guy says, “oh, I don’t like to talk about politics” and the other bloke says, “that’s impossible.” And the first bloke keeps trying to start conversations about the price of beer or how big an egg is and he can’t talk about it because everything’s political.
Q: There are references to spirituality and religion in Visitors. Do you believe in a deity?
No. But the interesting thing is the existence of organised religion. I absolutely don’t think there is an afterlife, or a deity or a God, or whatever word you’d use. I’m interested in two things: the numinous qualities in humanity – the inner light of people – and also the world. When you watch a flock of starlings, you really struggle not to believe in how magical the planet is. I don’t know what that is; it’s probably just the world being wonderful, but I recognise absolutely the unknowable, wonderfulness of being alive in the world. I also think we do have all of these organised religions, which is so interesting. I’m from the Anglican Church so let’s stick to that. Rowan Williams advocates that we now live in a “post-Christian” society; any higher profile a Christian it would be hard to find. We may live in a post-Christian society, but we are still in a situation where, anywhere except London, the biggest and prettiest buildings always have the same use. In every community in the country, the most money spent in history was spent on the Church; until very recently, 10 per cent of everybody’s income went to the Church; you can still walk from London to Oxford on church ground. For better or for worse, we have this thing at the heart of our culture, which is a set of buildings, a set of cultural values, a set of cultural beliefs, a set of lovely songs (I like the hymns a lot) – it’s just a huge part of what we are as a culture. While I was studying English literature, everyone I read who wrote until about 1960, knew most of the Bible – it’s the absolute root-note of who we are. My Dad’s an organist and my step-Dad’s was a lay-clerk in Westminster Abbey and Salisbury Cathedral, and my Mum’s been in church choirs all her life, so for all my childhood years I was there singing. The church is right in the centre of my experience of the world because I had to go there all the time! Nevertheless, I think the idea that there is a conscious force outside the world seems patently nonsensical, and the idea of life after death is just a terrible lie that was peddled to the impoverished to try and prevent revolutions as far as I can tell, a “better luck next time” argument. It was there to comfort the unfortunate, back when we couldn’t be bothered to help them. My history is among bricklayers, so I guess I mean me. I’ve been incredibly lucky: the way that the twentieth century treated my family means that I’m able to write things now. A hundred years back and we were farmers, stonemasons and brickies, so I feel like the Church did them a bit of a disservice because it took all of their money off them, made them really scared of getting drunk or having girlfriends, and told them that they shouldn’t complain now because it would be all lovely milk and honey later, and I don’t think there was.
Q: Have your grandparents seen Visitors? What was their response?
They actually haven’t. They have a combined age of 186-years-old so transporting them would have been quite complex. Also the play is not really about my grandparents, it takes its cue from them, but I didn’t feel totally confident that they wouldn’t watch this story and feel troubled by the idea that someone related to them had written it. I’d hate for that misunderstanding to ever grow up between us.
Q: I suppose that’s the perennial problem of being a writer: the danger that loved ones might take offence to something you write, assuming it to be based on them.
A: Yeah. And even on this project, my Mum is determined that the play is much more about her than it really is. She moved recently to a farm and keeps chickens so the minute that Arthur comes in at the end of 1.2 and says, “that’s the chickens in,” she fell about laughing because she thought that whole bit was about her. In the nicest way possible, it’s not – I wrote it long before they moved to Wales. I’ve read other writers saying that people don’t spot the bits that actually are based on them, and the bits that are nothing to do with them, they’ll say, “that was me.” I suppose that happens because people don’t notice what they’re really like, but they notice other things, I don’t know.
Q: Some of Edie’s lines in Visitors are quite lyrical; did you intentionally give them that quality?
A: I think there’s a degree of intention there. She was a wonderful character to write because her condition allowed for the retrospective mood, and so few of us ever inhabit that mood on an ordinary day. The other thing I was trying to do was to express the life of a human being who I felt was absent from our stages, absent from our cultural conversation: just a woman in the country, facing the end, who had not done anything that our society deems as extraordinary. I wanted to depict the poetry of her life and language is a helpful way of doing that. Those monologues that take us into a half-real place in the play, where she will speak for a little while, I hope are expressing an underlying poetry which is in her, as much as being descriptive.
Q: How long did it take to write Visitors?
A: Ages. I started writing it in 2000, and we had a first reading with a wonderful actor called Christopher Benjamin in 2001. Chris organised a reading with some actor friends of his. He was an actor that my family already knew – my Dad got in touch with Chris and asked him if he would come and do a reading of the play and he agreed to help out. So we all sat around in his flat and did a reading, but back then it wasn’t that good. It stayed like that for a while because I didn’t know how to make it any better and no one was going to do it. I then shopped it around lots of different theatres but no one really fancied it. Josie Rourke, who was then at the Bush, commissioned me to do a play that ended up getting folded into what is now the play. I then went to the Salisbury Playhouse who gave me some free rehearsal space and mucked around for a week, and other things started emerging. I then wrote it up as a seven-hander play called Pillars of England – terribly grandiose title – which the Southampton Nuffield gave a workshop to and decided not to do. Well everybody decided not to do it and then I left Out of Joint Theatre Company, where I had been working, to seriously put together this production. Up in Arms had done some little plays and we wanted to try the big one next; it was time. So I went and moved into my Dad’s spare room and put the show together, so that was about eight years, all told.
Q: Are you working on any new projects at the moment?
A: Yes, I am. I am doing a play in the spring for Salisbury, which is going to tour around Wiltshire, which is exciting. It’s going to be a play about mental health in Wiltshire, although it’s really about the pressure of systems on kids and the possibility of secession from society. But that’s a real departure; it’s an attempt to write a different kind of play and we’ll be reaching directly, a more rural audience than we have with any previous projects, which is good. Then next Autumn, I have another play for Up in Arms, which we’re working on at the moment that we haven’t announced yet – that feels like the next play in terms of its got a half-time break. It will be a similar sort of team-making show; Alice [Hamilton] will direct it again.
Q: How does your poetry fit into your oeuvre? Is there interplay between your poetry and your playwriting?
Gosh, an oeuvre! I think it sort of does in that it maps out territory and represents the taking of mental possession of a landscape, not specifically a physical landscape, but an area where you can tell a story – a poem it a really helpful way of doing that. But really, I just like writing, and so I think the way it all fits in is that it’s about the mood you’re in, it’s about whether you were reading Seamus Heaney or Brian Friel the night before, and it’s about why you’re writing something down. I don’t know why I write poetry, really. I don’t know what I write plays either – I just really like it.
Q: Have you ever considered writing prose fiction?
Indeed, I have and am and do. I am in the process of finishing a novel about an accident in Salisbury, which becomes five interweaving stories about life in that city and why it’s lovely even though it’s very ordinary – just like the five rivers that run through the city, that’s the conceit there. It’s a fictional map of the life of the city of Salisbury. I’m sure it will be available soon in all good bookshops if my agent is good and nice to me.