The North Wall has commissioned a new monologue by playwright and actor Luke Barnes for Alchymy 2018. I Am A Man will be performed daily throughout the festival. Here Alchymy’s critic-in-residence Fergus Morgan interviews Luke about his playwriting career so far:
At the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last August, at 8.45pm every evening, Summerhall’s intimate Roundabout Theatre buzzed with an electrifying, infectious energy. The show, Middle Child Theatre’s All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, was one of the festival’s hottest tickets – an exhilarating, time-hopping piece of gig-theatre that spoke directly to Millennials and their spiritual ennui.
For its author, the staunchly Liverpudlian Luke Barnes, it was another springboard hit from a festival that’s been extremely kind to him. Back in 2012, it was the twin successes of his plays Chapel Street and Bottleneck that launched Barnes’ career as a playwright. “I couldn’t have had my career without Edinburgh,” he admits. “It’s been very good to me.”
Writing plays, though, wasn’t Barnes first choice of theatrical profession. Raised in North Liverpool, he spent a few years with the National Youth Theatre, studied at the Oxford School of Drama, then pursued professional acting – some theatre, but mostly TV – for five years.
“I think it was a mutual break-up between me and acting,” he laughs. “I didn’t like the instability, and I didn’t like the constant having to put a brave face on if it wasn’t going well, and I didn’t like other actors socially, because it became so competitive.”
“The act of playwriting is very different. It’s me saying “look, I’ve observed this about the world and I’d like to share it.” It’s me trying to start a debate or a conversation about a world I’d like to see. I don’t think playwriting is as egotistical as acting. If anything, it’s a purer expression of truth.”
You might recognise Barnes if you’re a fan of binge-watching box-sets. He had a supporting role in HBO’s Game of Thrones for several years, before his character got killed off, mauled by revengeful wolf. Ironically, it was the financial success of his acting career that afforded him the freedom to pursue playwriting.
“I saw Nabokov do a Joel Horwood play called Is Everyone Okay? in 2009,” Barnes explains. “It was really fun and boisterous, and I recognised myself in it. That was the first time I realised theatre could be about me and my mates, not just about these big, cerebral ideas and these grand worlds like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.”
“I had this bit of extra cash from doing Game of Thrones, and I felt a bit disillusioned with the whole acting thing, so I started writing this play for an actor friend of mine. And that was Chapel Street. That toured after Edinburgh, and then I started getting commissions.”
The ethos that drove Chapel Street – writing accessible plays for audiences often ignored by bigger, London-based theatres – has remained with Barnes throughout his career. For him, playwriting isn’t about aiming for the country’s biggest stages, it’s about writing stories that will speak directly to specific communities.
“If you start thinking that the Royal Court has more value than, say, the Live Theatre in Newcastle, then what are you saying?” he ponders. “If it’s not about the building, then it’s about the audience, so are you saying that people from London are worth more than people from Newcastle? The only thing those big buildings have to offer you is exposure. That’s it.”
“I don’t really see my career as a trajectory and I don’t think of theatre as hierarchical,” he continues. “My philosophy is to keep doing things that have a reason to exist, that tangibly have an effect on communities and society.”
According to Barnes, theatre should truthfully interpret an audience’s own experience. Only then can it begin to have such an effect, only then can it achieve something worthwhile.
“I’m not suggesting that theatre can start a revolution or reimagine society at all,” says Barnes. “What we can do is elicit a small change in someone’s psyche by telling stories in a way they can consume them. Sometimes that’s just telling them that they’re alone, that we’re sharing this feeling.”
“If we can design theatre that’s a genuinely populist art form, then hopefully we can start to plant those thoughts in people’s heads. Theatre’s not the medium for massive political change, but it is where we can plant the seeds.”
But making theatre that faithfully reflects a specific audience’s life does not mean a playwright can only write about communities they are familiar with. For Barnes, the role of a playwright is far less authoritative, far less egotistical.
“My job isn’t to be an expert. My skill is to sculpt theatre and write plays and structure stories,” he explains. “It’s not my job to be the da facto voice of truth. It’s my job to offer people a platform who can’t speak for themselves. I don’t see my job as anything other than amplifying someone else’s story, because if it was just my story, then guess what? It would be a really boring story.”
“Playwrights have this fucking stupid idea that their the voice of truth. I think of myself as a channel for other people, as a loudspeaker. We give playwrights way too much reverence.”
It’s a refreshing approach to making theatre, and it’s an approach Barnes will be bringing to Alchymy 2018. His short play I Am A Man is one of a triple-bill of monologues being performed once every day of the festival. It’s a welcome chance, he says, to try out some of the ideas about masculinity he’s currently exploring.
“In my mid-to-late twenties, me and a bunch of friends started to get really, really sad,” he explains. “It was this combination of living a life full of dreams that couldn’t be realised, and the fact that we were all failing to be that loud, gobby, shagging, drinking loads lad we thought we had to be.”
“I think the biggest challenge we face in society is people thinking they have to behave in a certain way,” he continues. “I’m very lucky, working in theatre, because I get the chance to reflect on that stuff, but a lot of people, a lot of men, don’t. I’m interested in the people that don’t fulfil that idea of man and aren’t strong enough to reject it completely.”
Barnes thesis is that men who fall between these stools sometimes find their emotional support online, on websites like Reddit and 4chan. He’s even been down that rabbit-hole to find them.
“These people occupy all the dark corners of the internet,” he says. “They’re everywhere, they’re all men, and they’re all just festering. Then someone like Breitbart come along and capitalises on it. And that’s how someone like Donald Trump gains momentum. I’m currently obsessed with that, with those ideas of masculinity and the repercussions they have.”