'Visitors' by Barney Norris: It’s a play made with love

Inspired by his grandparents, Barney Norris has written a play about a long, loving marriage. Why is such a subject thought unfashionable for the stage, he wonders

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The Independent Culture

My play Visitors tells the story of the last few weeks an elderly couple spend together on the farm where they have lived their lives. It’s a story about ageing and care, about rural life in England now, and about the silences and distances within families; but above all, it’s a hymn to a life-long love.

I started writing Visitors in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when one of the interesting ideas in circulation, about which no politician really did anything, was the need to organise our society around something other than the pursuit of growth alone.

 I thought of that a lot when writing my play. I had been inspired to write it, in part, by my grandparents, who will celebrate their 72nd wedding anniversary this Christmas Day. I had always thought there were lessons to be learned from their shared life, because long after their careers have receded into the distance of memory, their days are still filled by one another.

That seemed to me to say something valuable about what’s important in a life. It made me want to put a marriage on stage, in the hope that other people might find the idea of a successful marriage as profound and beautiful as I do. I began to wonder whether such a story might not offer up other ideas about how we might measure the success of a life, might show us a way out of our highly flammable fixation with growth.

Growth, after all, has not been the interest of my grandparents. They live in the same house they built after the Second World War, in the village where the memorial commemorates my Grandad’s three brothers who were killed in the First World War. Their culture is rooted in rootedness: it is a whole different way of life to the one I experience in the city.

I drew on their example in writing Visitors to try to create a portrait of an England I felt was presently receding, because I think the writer’s job is always to document cultures before they disappear – but also because I believed it had something to teach us about who we are and what we’re for. What I hope I have portrayed is a life with love at the heart of it.

I believe love is central to our lives – that all the births, marriages, deaths and friendships that happen to us form the core of our experience of life while we’re visiting. I wanted to encourage people to think about that, and perhaps to take that thought into their daily lives, in the hope that it might enrich us, in an attempt to advocate in a small way for a recalibration of the values by which we live.

Theatres are empathy engines: nothing is as effective as a good play at generating sympathetic understanding of other lives. I hope I have used that essentially loving act, the act of watching a play, suspending your own life and paying close attention to someone else’s, to encourage a wider consideration of the value to us of empathy, of love.

Love is an unfashionable subject in our culture. The word is ubiquitous, but it’s used to refer to other things – to lust, infatuation, longing, meeting, parting, rarely to the experience of actually loving someone or something.

In a market-driven society, perhaps that’s no surprise. Where everything we do is engineered to pursue growth, to pursue achievement, love is likely to be marginalised, because you can’t achieve love, you can only practise it.

In a society as devoted as ours is to individualism, obsessed as ours is with the self and self-fashioning, love, the sublimation of the self into something greater, will struggle to get a look-in. But I don’t think that has to be the way things are, and I don’t know how much good it does us either.

Ascribing intention to one’s own work is a risky exercise. I don’t know whether there are writers who are in control of the meaning of their material while they work, but I’m certainly not. What I know is that I tried to tell a story that fascinated me as truthfully as possible, to communicate the poetry of everyday life in Wiltshire, my part of the country.

Working out why I became transfixed by the image of these two people, confronting the end of life and discovering that there is no such thing as belonging or permanence or home, but that there is such a thing as love, and that it is what lends us all meaning in our lives, feels like archaeology at best, guesswork at worst.

But I do know for certain that it’s a play made with love, and I hope audiences will find something refreshing and valuable in that.

‘Visitors’ is at the Bush Theatre, London W12 to 10 January (020 8743 5050)

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