Actress and writer Georgina Barley refused to feel defeated by the cancellation of her debut play Lovesick six months ago due to the Covid crisis. Instead Georgina put her mind to creating a version of the piece that could be staged post-lockdown and she can’t wait to share it with audiences at London’s White Bear Theatre from 13-17 October 2020.
Georgina Barley (who is also a co-producer of Lovesick and plays the role of Sarah opposite Lesley Ann Acheson as Maggie) is an Australian actor and writer who trained at the Drama Studio London and the National Youth Theatre.
She has distilled the essence of her full-length play and delivered it in one concentrated shot – fewer characters and a shorter one-hour running time – but the heart of this tale of identity and transformation is still intact.
In Lovesick the relationship between patient, surgeon and donor is laid out on the operating table, ready for dissection. How to face death, and come out the other side. How to find your true self in a body with foreign parts. And how heartbreak and lovesickness – with no known cure – can make you grow. This is heightened, raw, emotional storytelling.
“I didn’t ask for this feeling. It’s invasive, it’s infectious, I don’t want it, so I’m asking you – very politely – to medicate me.”
Sarah needed a heart transplant. Maggie was her surgeon. The operation ran smoothly, but there are now complications…
Georgina Barley on Lovesick at the White Bear Theatre
It must have been tough when the initial run of your play Lovesick was postponed because of the Coronavirus. Can you tell us a bit about what happened and how life has been for you during lockdown?
It was tough – but the circumstances under which we had to postpone were so exceptional and humbling, I think we all accepted it quite quickly. It can be very easy, when working on a project like this, to become completely consumed by it and lose focus of the real world, but then a force like Covid-19 can come along and you realise that it’s bigger than all of us and that some things can wait. But it was heartbreaking to see the industry grind to a halt – and even worse to hear it branded ‘unviable’ or ‘unskilled’.
Like most people, my mental health during lockdown was saved by the easy access to brilliant films, TV shows, online theatre, books and music. I know that circumstances still aren’t ideal for live theatre, and venues aren’t able to operate at full capacity. But I’ve missed theatre so much, and am proud we’ve found a way to pull something together now – despite all the compromises. There’s always that second-lockdown-sword-of-damocles hanging over our heads, but if we’re forced to postpone again we’re ready for it and will be able to bounce back again. There is some comfort in the fact that as an industry, we are all in the same boat, facing the same beast, and will pull through it all together.
The press release describes the forthcoming production at the White Bear as a ‘Covid edit’, now a one-hour performance with only two of you in the cast. What were the challenges of adapting the play in this way while staying true to the themes?
In a way, we’ve ended up coming full circle: the first stage of Lovesick’s development was at the ‘Theatre in the Pound’ night at The Cockpit, where we performed a stand-alone scene with only two of us in the cast. Since then, the play has gone through so many different iterations, adding, changing and taking away characters – so even though it has been pared back to a two-hander version again, the offstage world of the play is much richer.
Of course, it was incredibly difficult to cull some of my favourite scenes from the full version, but it has helped me to think of this ‘Covid edit’ as an alternate version of the original play, not a replacement. There are so many ways this story could have gone. And sometimes it’s hard to stop second-guessing yourself and questioning whether you’re doing it ‘right’. This is one of the major challenges I’ve found as a new writer. You just have to trust in the story you’re telling now, even if it wasn’t what you’d originally planned, and even if a few years down the track you may find you have a better idea. You can either wait until then, or just do it now and see what happens.
Lovesick has a fascinating concept. What was the inspiration for the play? What themes were you interested in exploring? Do you think it is any more relevant now in a world so devastated by the pandemic?
It was a really dreary winter day, and I was sitting on the top deck of a bus looking out at the Thames, and ‘Lovesick’ by Bob Dylan was playing through my headphones. I started to think about that word and what its most literal translation would be: someone physically sick with love, someone whose heart – the figurative centre of love – is literally causing them to feel this powerful emotion as a ‘side effect’ of a medical procedure. So I kept the title, as inspired by Bob Dylan’s song, and the story grew from there.
I’ve always been interested in the history of science and medicine (and derive some sort of macabre pleasure from reading surgical memoirs and collecting medical models). I think there are certainly some themes that resonate particularly in light of the pandemic, such as our desperate reliance on healthcare professionals in times of crisis and also the incredible stresses they face. But also, when we read through this version for the first time, I was really struck by the loneliness of the two women, and their desires for love and connection. Lockdown showed us how hard it is to be cut off from other people. And I think it’s really made me appreciate how plays never sit still – they’re not fossils, or ants trapped in resin. They’re constantly morphing and expanding and shifting, whether that’s at the hand of the writer or under the influence of changing world events.
It’s impressive to have your debut play running at a high profile London Fringe venue, how did that come about?
The production proposal had been sitting in my email drafts for ages and I finally thought it was time to evict it! I’d seen other productions at the White Bear and remember thinking at the time that it would be great to have a show on there.
You have enjoyed success as an actress as well, did you always hope to be able to pursue your interest in writing too?
I’ve always enjoyed writing, and the two disciplines definitely cross over and inform each other. Basically I was getting tired of sitting round waiting for the phone to ring! Actors are so often at the mercy of the people who create the work, because – obviously – without the work there’s nothing for us to do. So when no one is offering you anything, you have to make your own.
This is the first time I’m being directed in a show I’ve also written, which has been a big learning experience. When you’re cast in someone else’s show and handed their script, you don’t question the words on the page – this is what your character says, this is what they do, and this is the world in which they live. Your job is to take that off the page and breathe life into it. But when you’ve written those words yourself, it’s extremely difficult to disengage the part of your brain that wants to just keep editing and shifting things around. So I think one of the challenges is to reach a point where you treat that script with the same respect you’d treat another writer’s script, and just do your job as an actor – bring truth to it.
When did director Helen Tennison come on board?
Helen was a tutor and director at my drama school, and when it came to finding a director for my scene at The Cockpit way back in 2018, there was no question that I wanted to work with her again. Helen has been a huge part of the process since that first showing, as has my colleague Maria Hildebrand, who was unfortunately unable to join us for the production this October. Helen has always treated the play with respect, and handing it over to her is actually incredibly liberating, because I know it’s in safe hands.
What are your plans, if any of us can make any (!), for Lovesick and your future as an actress and writer?
I’d love to revisit the full version of the play sometime in the future, when things are more stable in the theatre world. But I’d also love to move on to a new project. Everything is very much up in the air, but the show must go on!