Peter Barnes

Surprising and adventurous dramatist
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The Independent Online

Recognition in the shape of awards and nominations - a Laurence Olivier Award, an Evening Standard Award, a Royal Television Society Award, an Oscar nomination - was far from absent during Peter Barnes's crowded career in the theatre and the cinema. And yet this most consistently surprising and technically adventurous of dramatists seemed always to remain something of a maverick among his generation and only rarely did his work capture the wide public imagination.

Peter Barnes, dramatist: born London 10 January 1931; married 1958 Charlotte Beck (deceased), 1995 Christie Horn (two sons, two daughters); died London 1 July 2004.

Recognition in the shape of awards and nominations - a Laurence Olivier Award, an Evening Standard Award, a Royal Television Society Award, an Oscar nomination - was far from absent during Peter Barnes's crowded career in the theatre and the cinema. And yet this most consistently surprising and technically adventurous of dramatists seemed always to remain something of a maverick among his generation and only rarely did his work capture the wide public imagination.

In an era predominantly of minimalism and quasi-naturalism, Barnes's work, usually large in scale and scope (and often in size of cast), daring in choice of subject matter and style alike, could make English producers uneasy.

He provided rich opportunities for actors unafraid of bravura flourish - Peter O'Toole, Antony Sher, Alan Howard and Leonard Rossiter all suited his work (Simon Callow was another champion) - but his career-long drive to demolish the rigid categorisation of comedy and tragedy, and the headlong, ferocious, satirical thrust of much of his writing (his acknowledged master was Ben Jonson, while Frank Wedekind and Georges Feydeau were influences just as strong as his beloved Jacobean dramatists), marked him out as a wild card.

The gleefully splenetic writer, a seeming solitary, carefully researching the background world of his plays in the British Library (where his familiar, somewhat shabby presence will be missed) was in actuality the most gentle of spirits. He became a father only at the age of 69 when his second wife bore him first a daughter and then triplets; Barnes was overjoyed, even although he knew that he might well not live to see his children grow up. The awareness of death just around the corner similarly haunts his work; for Barnes, crucially, comedy could be just as cathartic as tragedy.

The idea of a writing career was formed early for Barnes, a voracious reader during his childhood and his education at Stroud Grammar School in Gloucestershire. After National Service and brief periods in the RAF and, none too happily, as a civil servant, he landed a script-reading job with a film and television company, which paid the bills until he was finally able to take up a full-time writing life.

Early work concentrated on one-act plays ( Sclerosis of 1965 the most successful) before the surprise success of The Ruling Class (1969, Nottingham Playhouse and Piccadilly Theatre), which was cleverly spotted by Barnes's fellow-Jonsonian Stuart Burge, then Artistic Director of Nottingham Playhouse during a particularly adventurous period. Wildly funny and venomously scurrilous in turn, The Ruling Class laid gleefully into the decaying institutions propping up a rotten Establishment and provided a dazzling central role (created by Derek Godfrey and played by Peter O'Toole in the screen version) in the loony aristo, The Earl of Gurney, who imagines that he is Jesus Christ.

The success of The Ruling Class (it won Barnes both the Evening Standard and John Whiting Award for Best Play) led to almost immediate productions of earlier work - Leonardo's Last Supper and Noonday Demons (both 1970) - and then Barnes happily returned to Nottingham to collaborate with Burge as co-director on his glittering version of Wedekind's Lulu plays (Nottingham and Apollo, 1970), fully alive to the original's heady eroticism and with Julia Foster memorably inhabiting the eternal temptress.

For the RSC, The Bewitched (Aldwych, 1976) was archetypal Barnes, with a canvas of the Spanish Inquisition (organised religion seemed always to bring out the zest in Barnes's satire) and a huge cast, including inbred Hapsburgs, driven zealots presiding over autos-da-fé, dwarves, madmen and forbidding nuns. His adaptation of Feydeau's The Purging (Old Vic and Criterion, 1976), which he also directed, had a superb central performance from Leonard Rossiter (a favourite Barnes actor), at the top of his formidable farcical form as an obsessed sanitary-ware tycoon.

Barnes's adaptations were always much more than literal translations or edited revisions, more radical reworkings of favourite writers - often those who favoured the scourge - including John Marston's Antonio (1979) and Jonson's ebullient satire The Devil is an Ass (1977, Nottingham and National Theatre). He also directed what he regarded as Jonson's finest play, Bartholomew Fair (1977, Round House).

The title of Laughter! (1978, Royal Court) was a Barnes challenge; the play received almost unanimously terrible notices and most audiences sat thereafter in frosty silence during the production's foreshortened run. It was misguidedly directed (although both Timothy West and Frances de la Tour were excellent) and sadly the play's real originality - its combative rejection of the conventional divisions between comedy and tragedy - was missed in the "controversy" surrounding one particular section, involving two old Jewish comics cracking jokes on the way to the gas ovens (some of the gags indeed had been told at Auschwitz). Barnes had the conviction of the true satirist - Swift would surely have agreed with him - that "perhaps it is better if we think before we laugh".

A return to the company ethos of the RSC saw one of Barnes's finest plays, once more on the epic scale, a large-cast, robustly Vaudevillian mixture of buoyant comedy and mortality-haunted parable, with Red Noses (1985, Barbican). Set against the plague of the Black Death, it took on the suggestion of Berowne's belief in Love's Labour's Lost that it is impossible "to move wild laughter in the throat of death", and often proved Shakespeare's hero wrong.

Later theatre work included the brief London run of Sunsets and Glories (1990, Queen's) and his version of Yukio Ninagawa's Tango at the End of Winter (1991, Piccadilly) with Alan Rickman as the glumly moody hero.

Although the theatre always was Barnes's first love, he never had the commercial success that many of his contemporaries enjoyed. However, on television, and subsequently on film, he was more financially successful, as well as providing British television screens with some memorable productions. His Nobody Here But Us Chickens (1990) won him the RTS Award and he also directed his own superb adaptation of Dickens's Hard Times (1994); the novel's fusion of tough-minded social satire and energised comedy found an ideal partner in Barnes. A somewhat unexpected marriage of author and adapter - Barnes's version of Elizabeth von Armin's novel of four women sharing an Italian villa, Enchanted April (1992) - brought Barnes an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. Film work occupied him considerably subsequently - he delivered two new completed scripts shortly before his death.

Barnes also worked prolifically in radio during the latter stages of a now-vanished golden era of BBC radio drama. Several series of his wonderfully varied monologues, Barnes' People, were broadcast during the 1980s. Of his many radio plays, especially memorable was The Jumping Minuses of Byzantinium (1981) which deservedly won the Giles Cooper Award.

Barnes was a compulsive worker and many scripts remained sadly unproduced, although he seemed quite remarkably free from rancour when faced mostly with rejections from both commercial producers and the subsidised sector during various lengthy phases of his career. One of his plays - splendidly titled For All Those That Got Despondent (1977) - reflected his own conviction that disappointment must be risen above and that the writing itself was more important than its success or its failure.

Alan Strachan



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