Guest Column

Thinking Space

By Barney Norris

19 February 2013

Our country's good. Photographer Robert Workman 2

Dabby: Why can’t we do a play about now?

Wisehammer: It doesn’t matter when a play is set. It’s better if it’s set in the past, it’s clearer.

What’s the most effective way of engaging with the present state of England? Are we best able to get to grips with what’s happening in our country over a pint; out of a history book; by following the news from parliament? Where can we take ownership of the ideas and problems that characterise and pattern our society, and best attempt to understand them?

I work at the touring theatre company Out of Joint, where our Artistic Director, Max Stafford-Clark, believes that different societies come up with different answers to these questions. In Australia, he suggests, the novel seems to be the place where the identity and history of that country is interrogated. I’d suggest that in America, it might be the cinema that shows people who they are and who they could be. In Britain, Stafford-Clark suggests the theatre plays that role.

Whatever the form though, history seems to suggest that art has a role to play in answering these questions. By presenting life in the abstract, art creates a distance across which we, usually too busy with the business of living to wonder how we’re doing at it, are able to observe ourselves, become self-reflexive, and think a little. Art creates space in which we can think, and formulates the messy moralities of individuals into a coherent statement for analysis. On this island, that function has been performed by artists working in every conceivable genre – but I think Stafford-Clark has a point when he argues that the theatre has been of particular value to us in this regard. It’s in the nature of plays that they should comment effectively on group behaviour – they are written to be presented to a large, live audience, gathered together in the same place at the same time, and right back to the beginning of the theatre they have performed a reflective function – as Governor Phillip observes in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play Our Country’s Good, ‘the Greeks believed it was a citizen’s duty to go to the theatre.’ They hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.

What, then, is the potential of the theatre as a lens through which to examine society? It has limits like anything else, of course – it can’t keep pace with the news agenda without sacrificing its virtues as a crafted idea – but what it does very well indeed is provide us with greater room for reflection on the subjects it interrogates. In Our Country’s Good, Dabby Bryant and John Wisehammer disagree about the best way to use a play. Dabby would rather put her own life under lights, while Wisehammer thinks more can be learned from observing someone else’s.

While writing my new play, Fear Of Music, I found myself engaging with the same dilemma – I wanted to write a play that interrogated the state we were in. What sort of mirror should I be using to remove the log from my own eye? Was it not possible that I would best learn how to perform such major surgery by first removing the speck from someone else’s, and transposing contemporary questions into another place and Fear Of Music is a look at England now – a story about isolated young people living through recession, left to their own devices by a country that doesn’t look after its own. It’s the story of what’s happening to my generation. In order to best address this current crisis, however, I have ended up writing not about now but about Thatcher’s England. I took my cue from Seamus Heaney, who has said that he avoided the subject of politics in Ireland during the 70s and 80s because the poets who attempted to engage with it tended to produce what he and his contemporaries termed ‘Troubles trash’ – work too snared in the headlines to add much depth to life.

My feeling is that plays are emblematic. They are metaphors whose significance is assigned and invented by their audience. As David Hare has observed, a play happens in the air between the audience and the performance – its meanings are discerned by the eye of the beholder, not the playwright or director or anyone on the stage (to underline the point, it’s worth relating that when Out of Joint produced Hare’s The Permanent Way, an exploration of the privatisation of British Rail and the consequences of that, Hare records meeting one friend in tears after a performance who said to him, ‘I didn’t know you’d written a play about AIDS’ – an extension of the metaphor of Hare’s play into the political consciousness of that individual which happens when the metaphor works, and is the reason that a play such as, say, Hamlet moves us – the reason we weep for Hecuba).

With this in mind, I resolved that the best way I could address our current political situation was to develop first of all an effective metaphor, rather than prioritise enumerating the challenges we are facing under this government. My audience, after all, already know what those are.

The useful function I could perform was to provide space and a scaffold for the ideas and thoughts we all already have about England now, in order to allow them to run as eloquently as possible through the minds of the people watching my play.

Jonathan Miller recently criticised the systematic transposition of old plays to new settings – ‘if someone has had the wisdom to write about their own period, then it becomes a document of its moment. Directors just ‘theatre-schlep’ when they simply dump a production in another era. It stops it from being a witness of where it comes from.’ I found myself wondering what his view might be of my play, or indeed of Our Country’s Good – plays which transpose not settings but arguments across space and time. His observations made me wonder whether I was avoiding the head-on collision with my subject that might become possible if I set my play in 2013. Or was I right to suspect, as Heaney did, that very little is ever learned from a head-on collision? On reflection, I would argue that one reason art has been continually effective in informing societies about the way they are living is that all meaning is best discerned across a distance. By offering a different context for which the problems which beset us can be observed, I believe it is possible for a play to bear more suggestive witness.

Production photo by Robert Workman. Fear of Music by Barney Norris, is at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 28th February – 2nd March. The Out of Joint production of Our Country’s Good is at the St James Theatre until 23rd March 2013.


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