Arcola Theatre – until 17 October 2015
THE GREATNESS OF SMALL LIVES
We are in a pub garden in rural Hampshire, where landlord John is gathering logs for the fire (in high summer, “it’s part of what people come for”), and telling a joke about a ferret and a blow-job to cheer up Mark, a lanky, sad youth. Along comes Liz the bravely prattling church organist. They talk. A year later, they meet again. That’s all. But it is immense.
Sometimes a new playwright emerges bringing not only skill, but a determination to offer a perspective and preoccupation outside the mainstream of dramatic, and indeed national, discourse. Barney Norris’ theme is unregarded lives in rural communities: villages hollowed out by alien money, agribusiness and a hypermobile world. But his concern is neither agitprop nor nostalgia, simply an exploration of how people inwardly navigate the rolling waves of life.
Norris first full play, Visitors, was a quietly, beautifully, tragic reflection on loss and memory, with an old farm couple at its heart. This time the three protagonists are on the face of it less vulnerable as they confront the universal problem of how life plods or races past you, unstoppable, unseizable except in fragments. It is also about the consolation of mere human interaction: chats in a drab pub garden with a semi-stranger.
But by pretending to no grandiosity, Norris reaches out further and deeper – as Jez Butterworth did in the more swashbuckling Jerusalem – into tradition, belief, identity, love, and the immense question of how anyone finds a place on a fast-turning uncaring globe. All this through jokey boozing John, young Mark the road-mender and odd-job labourer, and nervy Liz, who drives two hours to play the moribund church organ because it’s the only gig she can get.
The trio are variously likeable, and wholly believable (I find it hard to think of them as actors cven now, but they are James Doherty, Hasan Dixon and Ellie Piercy, perfect casting by director Alice Hamilton). They talk in the pub garden – first over a morning and evening, then a year later. At one point, two of them remember a verse from “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” and tears rise; but Norris turns the mood in seconds to a shock laugh and a crassness and breach. It is not without outside incident : it’s the landlord’s last day, he having sold to a chain after his wife left: the same morning sees the funeral of young Mark’s old schoolfriend, which he is missing because he needs the council work of repairing the war memorial she crashed into. “It’s for the centenary” he says; and skinny in his work boots, fresh from sleeping alongside motorways in the van he seems an modern heir of those WW1 recruits. In the second act Mark has sorted out his life, John returns just for a day, still lost, and Liz is giving up organ playing.
None of them are yokels: John’s conversation, when not ferret-based, is sharp, literate, poetic and aware, and Mark has a restless wish to know more of the world and “fill up his bookcase from down at the Sue Ryder”. Both have travelled: indeed a sidelong delight of the play is Norris’ beautiful debunking of the great modern god Travel. John went to Nepal but “there’s only so many hours a day you can spend being fascinated by how foreign everything is”. Mark – now humbly learning FIlipino words off his work colleagues – came home from India after only a week having given his money to beggars. He was repelled in a proper, decent spirit by the filthy poverty. “I just thought, you cunt – coming over here like it’s an adventure, when it’s these people’s lives..Disrespectful, to be there staring at everything’. Superb.
box office 0207 503 1646 to 17 OCT then tour: Bury St Edmunds, Oxford, Salisbury, Bristol.