“They could have been written yesterday,” says director Philip Franks of Peter Barnes’ monologues, Barnes’ People. In fact they were written between 30 and 40 years ago and, when first performed on BBC Radio 3, drew actors of the calibre of Judi Dench, Peggy Ashcroft, Alan Rickman and John Gielgud.
Now a new quartet of actors has picked up the baton. Jemma Redgrave, Adrian Scarborough, Matthew Kelly and Jon Culshaw have taken on four of the English playwright’s monologues in a set of short films shot on the stage of the Theatre Royal Windsor.
“These were the ones that stood out as speaking most directly to us at the moment,” says Franks, who directs three of the solos. “Especially the oldest one, Rosa (1981), from a geriatrician who has reached the end of her tether at the callousness and cruelty surrounding the care home system.”
In the four films, we meet Dr Rosa Hamilton on the verge of a life-changing decision (Rosa), an elderly man talking to a grave in a churchyard (Losing Myself) and a ventriloquist conversing with the many voices in his head (Billy & Me). And, in A True Born Englishman (never previously publicly performed), we encounter Leslie Bray, a footman to the royal family giving a magazine interview. For Franks, each of these characters has a story to tell.
“It’s like meeting the ancient mariner,” he says. “They buttonhole you and you cannot look away. There’s that vividness and that sense of life. Even though the pieces are often about despair and losing control and sliding into an abyss. They have such vigour.”
On paper they sound similar to Alan Bennett’s masterly Talking Heads, which have also been beautifully revived during lockdown. Franks says Barnes’ monologues share qualities with Bennett’s works — unafraid to confront darkness, for instance — but that they have their own style.
“The Alan Bennett ones are brilliant, but they all have a twist in the tale,” he says. “Some revelation, often quite shocking, develops during the story. These don’t have that twistiness. Also they don’t have a multiple time scheme — these are told in the now and they are really, really urgent. So they all have that storytelling, grabbing you by the throat thing that allies them with Barnes’ playwriting. There’s that kind of generous theatricality in these as well.”
It’s a rare outing for Barnes’ work. Although Jamie Lloyd revived his 1968 comedy, The Ruling Class, in 2015 (with James McAvoy playing a crazed 14th-century earl), his work has largely fallen out of fashion. Even during his day Barnes (who died in 2004) swam against the tide. His stage works were passionate, funny, carnivalesque and angry, peppered with near-the-knuckle, sometimes controversial, black comedy and teeming with characters.
In his obituary of Barnes, director Terry Hands, who staged Barnes’ work at the RSC, wrote that while many other playwrights were composing pared-down dramas “[Barnes] was writing great sprawling epics with casts of 45, and more locations than a travel guide. He wrote with the wild exuberance of an Elizabethan delighting in language and inventing words when he could not find the ones he wanted.”
Franks fell in love with Barnes’ plays as a student. The playwright’s expansiveness and irreverent humour appealed to him. “He can handle a fart gag next to a soliloquy about death.” But they probably cost revivals, he suggests.
“I think there’s a group of writers who were feted in their day and who have been similarly marginalised: Peter Barnes, Edward Bond, Howard Barker and John Arden. You can define why in three words: politics, philosophy and economics. Economics because they wrote on a massive scale, so it became harder and harder to do them. Politics because they are all vocally anti-authoritarian. And philosophy because they deal with things that a lot of people really don’t like: violence, sexuality, the nature of humanity itself, value systems, political structures.”
Indeed Barnes claimed that A True Born Englishman was banned by the BBC, which the broadcaster denied. So, with its premiere, can we expect scurrilous intrigue?
“It’s not remotely scandalous about the royal family,” says Franks. “It’s not really about the royal family at all: it’s about the British tendency towards servility. [Bray] speaks glowingly and proudly about how the English make better servants than anybody else. So, unlike the other pieces, it’s a monologue of profound self-deception. He thinks that he is telling this journalist how wonderful his life is and as it goes on, you realise what a very, very tiny life he is leading.
“They are tough,” he adds. “They’re funny, they’re witty and they’re engaging — but they’re tough. I’m absolutely fed up to the back teeth with stories of analgesic inspiration. We don’t need it. We need to think about what’s happening . . . Wear a flak jacket and have a drink at your elbow! But you’re in for a treat.”
Available to stream February 18-July 31, originaltheatreonline.com