Writer Barney Norris says his play While We’re Here is part of an ongoing project to change the way we view society
WHILE WE’RE HERE is the meeting place of several different enquiries my theatre company, Up In Arms, has undertaken over the last few years, lines of thinking that come together in the story of the play.
The Eastleigh by-election to replace Chris Huhne in 2013, which some may remember boiled down to a contest between Ukip and the Lib Dems, made us want to make work about the atomised towns of the south of England where people struggle to come to terms with the low ceilings of suburban life; a southern culture we felt no one was speaking for. We wanted to make work about the way people related to the society around them – the way people run and hide from the world, and how they immerse themselves in it. We wanted to explore the way that people long for meaning in England now.
With support from house, the south-east based venue network, we visited several communities across the south of England, looking for a story to tell. Eventually, we found our way to Havant, a town outside Portsmouth and close to the coast where we felt a new world opening up to us. And as our research in Havant and elsewhere developed, we found ourselves drawn into explorations of fostering in the British Nigerian community in England; into mental health referral processes; into homelessness and hidden homelessness in the U.K. The play became a story about the way we look after the vulnerable in our country, as well as a story about human vulnerability, human weakness, human joy, and the tightrope between laughter and sorrow.
It is the latest play to emerge from an ongoing experiment being conducted by Up In Arms. Since our first full-length play Visitors opened in 2014, we have been engaged in a continuing exploration of what life is like for people in the neck of the woods we hail from.
We make regular visits to the communities where we grew up, and where we feel at home, primarily in Wiltshire and Hampshire but also stretching west into Dorset and north as far as Oxfordshire. Travelling round this region we take the temperature by conducting formal interview and research processes, and also through the more informal route of following our noses; revisiting old haunts; talking to family and friends, and listening for gossip. I call it dredging the hedgerows. The idea is to gather together the world as it looks from these places we know intimately, and share those perspectives on life with the wider world through making theatre.
We seek to feed our backgrounds into the contemporary cultural discourse in order to amplify the voices of the people we care about. We don’t only do this because we think their lives and their voices are important; our close focus on where we’re from is our way of advocating the validity of all lives, all perspectives, all cultures. Arguing for the importance of the detailed, the ‘unGooglable’, in one cultural context where we can deliver such detail with confidence is our means of insisting that people’s lives should be regarded and respected in all their complex specificity. That, to my mind, is the first step towards living in a tolerant, open society.
If you really wanted to get into it, perhaps you could say that makes us a very post-Blairite theatre company. It’s a common reflection on the legacy of the 1997 – 2010 Labour governments under which the company’s core members were all educated that their approach to cohering modern, diverse Britain into a new, coherent identity ended up looking like an attempt to homogenise culture, to knock the corners off all the different worlds that constitute modern Britain so nothing stuck out awkwardly.
The problem with that approach, of course, is that it negates the possibility of placing genuine diversity at the heart of who we are – it’s actually an attempt to marginalise diversity, brushing what makes each of us unique under the carpet in order to celebrate the things we share. Which doesn’t really get us anywhere, because if we shared all that already, we haven’t changed anything through the act of amplifying our common wealth. A truly open society would be one that worked to foster respect and interest in difference. A truly open society would allow people to have their corners. We argue for that reality through our exploration of our own little corner of the country.
We make theatre in order to argue for a change of emphasis to the curation of our present cultural discourse. The path we’d like to tread was mapped out by Seamus Heaney, who said in his Nobel Prize speech, “Even if we have terrible proof that pride in the ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not erode our love and trust of the indigenous per se. On the contrary, a trust in the staying power and travel-worthiness of such good should encourage us to credit the possibility of a world where respect for the validity of every tradition will issue in the creation and maintenance of a salubrious political space.”
Respect for the validity of every tradition – that’s a subtly but crucially different emphasis to the Blairite project and, in that change, I think, lies the future direction of the progressive left. So our ongoing project at Up In Arms is an attempt to change the emphasis on how we view the society in which we live; to argue for localism and genuine diversity as crucial parts of our future. A grand ambition for a small theatre company, no doubt; but we’re good at getting laughs as well, and no matter how much of a joke the modern left is, they can’t really claim that, so perhaps we have a USP that gives us a chance of mattering!