Features Essays Published 21 September 2015

Breaking The News

Barney Norris writes about rhyming with current events and the hedgerow inspiration behind his new play, Eventide.
Barney Norris

An exciting by-product of forming plays from material collected in the real world rather than simply making a story up is that you often find yourself anticipating the news agenda. I have experienced this synchronicity a few times recently. In 2013 I tried to force it, by writing a play, Fear Of Music, about receding opportunity among young people. After that, though, I relaxed a bit and started listening to what people wanted to talk about, rather than seeking out things I wanted to be said. I wrote my plays out of a research-led workshop process that involved picking a world I wanted to spend some time in, visiting the place and dredging the hedgerows there for secrets that expressed its spirit.

Since then, I’ve watched the government announce a review of dementia support as my play Visitors went into rehearsal; listened to Nick Clegg advocate the reinvention of mental health support as my play Every You Every Me toured psychiatric centres in Wiltshire; and now, as my company Up In Arms prepare to open Eventide, a meditation on the disappearance of the culture I come from, we find we’ve rhymed with Justin Welby as he makes plans for the riven Anglican communion to say goodnight to a common doctrine, and go to sleep in ‘separate bedrooms’, as his aides have poetically put it.

This has come about through no conscious intelligence of my own, but through giving the real lives of people in England now a platform in my work. It’s very simple, really. What you learn when you listen to people is that the political agenda, the social agenda, the news agenda isn’t set in Westminster or Wapping. The suits in the towers are amplifying and honing but always reacting to the word on our streets. The Lilliputians who do all the talking on these islands take their cues from a much bigger beast – from us, the people. So when I go round listening to the world, the result is that I get the news which hasn’t broken yet.

I started writing like this because it seemed to get results that people liked, but since I’ve discovered the effects it has, I’ve begun to think of it almost as a moral imperative. Making plays is such a glorious privilege, it’s hard to keep a sense that you’re living self-indulgently at bay if that’s what you do with your life. But I forget that concern when the Anglican church is unravelled while my play on the subject is in its third week of rehearsal. I feel I must be articulating an important subject, whether I meant to or not. I feel that I am speaking up for people.
I’m deeply disinterested in didacticism – the recourse of so many who seek to make the theatre political – but I firmly believe that a play must perform some definite social action, or there’s simply no point to the exercise. Very often when I see a production which doesn’t communicate any meaningful reason for its existence, I can’t help feeling it in fact does active harm. Shows staged just to fill theatres act like concrete round the feet of our cultural discourse – they drown the story they fail to serve.

A desire for social efficacy was the reason Up In Arms became a touring company. We wanted to grow an organisation that could tell stories in as many places as possible where they might conceivably be valuable. We wanted, as well, to amplify the interplay between performer and audience I’ve placed at the heart of my writing by building it into our productions. Rather than just sticking a show on in London, we wanted to get out among the hedgerows and talk to people; to start conversations; to play a socially valuable role. When you tour, you can seek out the people most likely to value a story, rather than simply hoping they’ll come to you.

I wrote my new play Eventide to entertain people – to make them laugh to make them cry, and thereby do the job of any good play, the job that only a play can do. However, because I developed it by talking to the people it was about rather than simply making it up, something else has happened to the story as it grew. It has acquired the character and concerns of a community, their passions, their personality. Or I think it has – I think I recognise my friends from Hampshire in the work. What I have tried to do is afford my friends the dignity they deserve, so rarely afforded them by the main stream of our urban culture, by putting them in front of an audience and giving them room to speak. And once again, it appears that by doing so, I’ve been able to hear the news before it was printed. Because there’s more wisdom to be found behind the doors of any street in England than there is to be found in all the newspapers in the world, and if you want to hear it, all you have to do is listen.

Eventide opens at the Arcola on the 23rd September before touring to Bury St Edmonds, Oxford, Salisbury and Bristol. More info here.

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Barney Norris is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine