Barney Norris: ‘It’s so precious and such a privilege, to live in a culture where we can expect things of people, and hold them to account, and we must advocate that wherever we’re afforded an opportunity to do so.’
3. The other
And here is what we discussed.
Barney Norris: what a young man. Chat to the writer about theatre and it feels, sometimes, like he’s simply one of us who’s accidentally ended up becoming a theatre juggernaut.
“I’m very in love with this idea. I did once go on the Mills and Boons site – you can earn a bit,” is the sort of thing he’ll say when asked if he’d write under a pseudonym. “They give you a how to write pack and you call yourself Edwina Pennyfeather or something like that.” He meets me today in the peaceful foyer area of Salisbury Playhouse and we are grabbing some time to talk while his play Echo’s End is in rehearsals.
Continue chatting with him and you realise that after only a few years on the job, Barney Norris, 30 is experiencing a coming of age. For example: this is his first proper main stage commission (“I felt very ready to write something that took more responsibility dramatically. I was excited to write for bigger stages”). For example: he’s written ‘While We’re Here’ the inaugural production at the new Bush studio space (“I’m excited about christening that space because I think in its transition into a larger space, the Bush has become a different kind of theatre that asks questions of directors that are different to the questions asked by working in a tiny room”). For example: despite his novel Five Rivers enjoying huge success and his unified plays ‘Visitors’ and ‘Eventide’ and on ‘The Rest of Your Life’– his first major short play and venture away from the known quantity of his Up In Arms creative team, albeit there have been some others. (“I’m sort of dancing around the fact that I didn’t think I wrote that much of a play, it was more like a scratch night than a play”). Barney continues to grapple with perfection.
“Anyway,” he eventually says, after a significant amount of chit-chat. “Shall we get started?”
Norris, 30, is a Salisbury lad, born and bred. Fittingly, Salisbury Playhouse are producing his play Echo’s End; the first in house main-stage production is the third since 97. The play is set on the edge of Salisbury Plain in 1915 where two families live in back-to-back cottage. Growing up, everyone expected the two children, John and Anna, to marry. But the First World War changes how their lives will pan out. “It’s been a massive journey – not so much about scale– I felt very ready to write something that took more responsibility dramatically,” he adds, quickly. “I was excited to write for bigger stages – the really exciting and complex thing about this commission was that it needed to be set one hundred years ago; I’d never done that. I now know that one of the reasons that you’d set a play in the past is that to understand who we are we must understand where we came from – also at a dramatic level, by saying it can be set at any time in history you open up this extraordinary range of potential colour palettes that you can play with.”
Certainly, there is plenty on his plate. I ask him what it’s like to have a line manager in Salisbury Playhouse’s artistic director Gareth Machin. “It’s a new relationship – so that does different things because you have new stimuli and therefore your thoughts tend in different directions – that brings new ways of negotiating the drafting process – I was still very reliant on Alice (Hamilton) to go through and get the draft and get the play’s shape right,” he explains. “Gareth had a very clear-sighted focus on audience experience amongst other things and a sense of taking responsibility – this play is the story of its audience, so it has to deliver on showing them something meaningful about who they were.”
Norris says that his aims for Echo’s End are “Trying to connect people to the roots of their lives. Trying to bring people in to contact with the depths we all carry with us through any given day and the things we’ve lost culturally in accruing what we have now,” he says. “I think trying to connect people to their heritage and the identity of the place in which they live. And I think I’m also trying to write a play about what happens to us, to people, to ordinary people, when our lives and our homes and our identities are annexed by politics, by the state, are turned into contested land. I think that’s a very current subject.”
To that end, Norris’s most significant achievement is that in 2016 his debut novel ‘Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain’, became a Guardian, Daily Mail and Evening Standard Book of the Year. What does the rest of 2017 hold? “So, the very next thing after we open Echo’s End on the Friday is that then on the Monday we are going into rehearsal for the next Up in Arms show: While We’re Here – a co-pro between Farnham Maltings, The Bush and Up in Arms that will premiere at The Bush, I see this new space as a beautiful opportunity to kind of come back to an element of the Bush’s historical identity – the aspect of the Bush that led to Holman and Kroetz and Puig and whoever,” he smiles. “To me, as a member of the Bush’s audience, that’s a very important thread of what the theatre means, so that should be in the mix amongst all the other things it does, and this new studio makes that possible, gives that back to the Bush.”
Behind Norris’s relaxed manner, you sense the steel. He has a vision for the future and is working towards it, while shaping it in his own way. We are talking at a time when independent journalism is under threat and ‘FAKE NEWS’ is the order of the day. What does Norris make of the critical infrastructure? “I’m a big advocate for taking critics seriously and respecting what they have to say,” he says. “Criticism as a practice is under threat in every aspect of our present cultural moment – the idea of being held to account is under threat. I think it’s important to stress that we enable that process as a medium when we allow our own critical apparatus to be undermined. And that means claiming not to look at reviews, and it also means allowing bad writing and bad, substandard commentary to go unchallenged,” he nods. “It’s so precious and such a privilege, to live in a culture where we can expect things of people, and hold them to account, and we must advocate that wherever we’re afforded an opportunity to do so.”
Echo’s End will run at Salisbury Playhouse from 31 March to 15 April, with previews from 29 March.