Peter Barnes was one of our sharpest playwrights. So why don’t we see his work?

·5-min read
<p>Jon Culshaw, Matthew Kelly, Jemma Redgrave & Adrian Scarborough in Barnes’ People</p> (Michael Wharley)

Jon Culshaw, Matthew Kelly, Jemma Redgrave & Adrian Scarborough in Barnes’ People

(Michael Wharley)

This month will see the disinterment of four fantastic monologues by one of our greatest writers of the form. No, it’s not the ubiquitous Alan Bennett, but his equally brilliant contemporary, Peter Barnes. Who?

The screening of Barnes’s four monologues will, I hope, reintroduce audiences to a great, unjustly neglected British theatrical talent. His solo works equal Bennett’s in their wit and humanity, but he was also the author of epic historical dramas, shot through with grotesque humour and dazzling theatricality, countless adaptations of European classics, and of the superlative 1968 satire The Ruling Class.

Peter Barnes in rehearsals in 1999Tony Buckingham/Evening Standard
Peter Barnes in rehearsals in 1999Tony Buckingham/Evening Standard

Born in Bow in 1931 to Jewish parents and brought up around the seaside amusement arcades they ran, Barnes did National Service in the RAF and worked initially for the London County Council before taking up writing. An autodidact with a love of both high and popular culture, he would write every day in the British Museum and, latterly, in McDonald’s – because, he said, you saw a wider cross-section of human life there, and the coffee was cheap.

He was an owlish, driven, contrary figure, his non-naturalistic, large-cast plays out of step with the prevailing orthodoxy of the 70s, 80s and 90s. His later work in US TV miniseries and literary adaptations could be seen as an up-yours to a theatrical establishment that couldn’t contain his teeming imagination.

So, in a way, was Barnes People, which began life on Radio 3 in 1980 as seven monologues for the finest actors of the day - Judi Dench, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness - and grew over a decade to embrace a large number of one, two and three-handers. Here, Barnes stripped away all the excess, artifice and historical baggage that characterised his stage work and distilled everything down to character.

Jemma Redgrave plays a despairing NHS doctor
Jemma Redgrave plays a despairing NHS doctor

The four monologues now revived by directors Philip Franks and Charlotte Peters – shot on the stage of the Theatre Royal Windsor and streaming online from February 18 – zing off the page. Rosa, from that first tranche in 1980, is the story of a middle-aged NHS doctor, driven to drink and despair by bureaucracy and underfunding. Originally performed by Judi Dench, it is now given voice by Jemma Redgrave, who describes it as “a tremendous piece of writing, as urgent, visceral, unsentimental and contemporary now as it was when he wrote it."

Billy & Me, about a ventriloquist usurped by his dummy, and Losing Myself, about a man contemplating the sudden emptiness of his life, date from 1989/90. First done by Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons, they are now taken by Jon Culshaw and Matthew Kelly. True Born Englishman, about a Buckingham Palace footman reflecting on the secrets he has kept for decades, was written for Antony Sher in the same season, but cancelled, leading Barnes to claim, typically, that he’d been censored by the royalist BBC.

Its premiere performance now falls to Adrian Scarborough. A “thrilled newcomer” to Barnes’s work, he says the script “draws a superbly brittle, fickle, comedic 'little' character. [But] by the end of the monologue, desperation, destruction and loneliness cry out with a vast echoing doom.” Philip Franks, who directs three of the four scripts, has been an admirer of Barnes’s voice – “funny, angry, compassionate, vivid and (in the best sense) theatrical” – since he was at Oxford and played the impotent, imbecile King Carlos II in Barnes’s sprawling study of the Habsburg monarchy in Spain, The Bewitched.

Matthew Kelly films Losing Myself
Matthew Kelly films Losing Myself

That student staging, which Barnes attended, was “the only other production of that play EVER apart from the RSC premiere” in 1974, according to Franks, and many of Barnes’s works were indeed seen once and never again, at least in the UK. The Ruling Class, about a hereditary peer who thinks he is Jesus, was the exception: it was filmed in 1972, earning Peter O’Toole his second Oscar nomination, and revived in 2015 by Jamie Lloyd at Trafalgar Studios, deservedly winning James McAvoy an Evening Standard Best Actor award.

But I’m not aware of any major revival of 1978’s Laughter! (which linked Ivan the Terrible’s reign to the bureaucracy of the Holocaust) or 1985’s Red Noses, about the Black Death. I first met Barnes to interview him about the premiere (and, it turned out, only major UK production) of Sunsets and Glories, his account of Celestine V, the only Pope ever to resign the papacy, at the then-new West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1990.

I was in my first journalism job at the small theatre magazine Plays & Players. Barnes, who had written reviews for its sister title Films & Filming, knew how little I’d be earning and bought me lunch at a Greek restaurant in Coptic Street. He was patient and affable as well as kind, and he gave great quotes. The size of his plays meant they could only be staged by the major subsidised companies, he said, but “the RSC have treated me with casual indifference and the National with continuous contempt”. He loved comedy but it was “a weapon for losers”. He wrote plays, he said, “to change the world”.

Peter Barnes
Peter Barnes

Ten years later, when his penultimate historical stage epic, Dreaming – about the Wars of the Roses – made it briefly to the West End, I interviewed him for this newspaper, and was glad to pick up the lunch bill. I last saw him give a talk at the Theatre Museum a year or two before he died, when he suffered a copious nosebleed on stage. He was working almost exclusively for US television by then (his agent once got him a commission to write an entire miniseries based on the title, Leprechauns). His last completed script, Babies, addressed his experience of finally becoming a father to a daughter at the age of 69, and then to triplets at 71, with his second wife, Christie, but he died of a stroke aged 73 in 2004 before it was shot.

The revival of four of his Barnes People monologues shines a light on one aspect of a career that was more wide-ranging and ambitious – and more unruly - than that of almost any of his contemporaries. A wider reappraisal is surely overdue.

From 18 Feb – 31 July, originaltheatreonline.com

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