Feature: Alice Hamilton and Barney Norris of German Skerries, “Audiences decide what a play is”

As a young theatre company, Up In Arms has already traversed the best new writing stages with two plays written by their co-Artistic Director, Barney Norris. When I spoke to him, and his directorial partner Alice Hamilton, I wanted to find out how this small touring company, thrust into the spotlight for rural work about everyday lives, was evolving. Their first two plays – Visitors and Eventide – were firmly set in experiences around Salisbury Plain and therefore the ‘home’ lives of the company’s directors (though both now live elsewhere). How would they tackle their new piece but old work – Robert Holman’s German Skerries?

Winner of the George Devine Award, 1977, German Skerries was first performed at the Bush Theatre, London. Holman has been Resident Dramatist at the National Theatre and the RSC, but German Skerries has not been revived since its first run – a fact that surprises Hamilton who notes its quiet beauty. Unequivocally, Norris describes Skerries as: “our North Star – the best expression we knew of what […] we thought theatre ought to do and look and feel like.” If the play represents their governing North Star it is also one that has pointed the company North. Set in the year it was first produced, during a hot summer, it considers four lives at a popular birdwatching spot in Northumbria.

Norris draws the contrast. “Holman is a poet of the north, as I’m a poet of the south. And he speaks of seas and heavy industry, where I’m more comfortable among farms and country pubs.” For those familiar with Up in Arms’ first two plays, Norris thinks that this aspect of its particular localism “will feel new.” But he is keen to stress that the larger literary tradition he and Holman write in will be recognisable, despite the differently vivid locales. For Hamilton, directing the piece, the unfamiliar setting has proved a great joy. She took time to absorb and photograph the landscape, “a jut of reclaimed land called South Gare, which sticks out into the North Sea at the mouth of the River Tees.”

Their commitment to local places is not just pertinent to the stories they tell. Touring, for Up in Arms, is “a way of getting beyond the core theatregoer audience, and being in dialogue with a broader spectrum of people.” More than that, explains Norris, it is “a way of connecting communities and sharing stories we’re passionate about.” The touring schedules (German Skerries is travelling from London out to Lancaster, Scarborough and Hull) are carefully chosen and “reflect aspects of the personality of the work.” Norris pauses, then clarifies, “In fact, they inform the personality of the work. The audiences of a play decide what the play is, after all. What an audience feels about a play is the play, and so the audience you play is everything.”

“For me it’s always about remembering what it was like to grow up in Wiltshire, where great work didn’t tour that often; […] I want there to be something out there for everyone, not just for people in the capital.” Thus “reaching young audiences is somewhere very near the heart of Up In Arms.” That philosophy to reach beyond the capital also feels closely connected to recent developments in research showing the disparity in public funding for the arts between London and the rest of the UK. But is theirs a political philosophy? Norris explains:

“I don’t think of the work we make as political in the sense the theatre tends to use that word – issue-driven, didactic, not very good, being synonyms that spring to mind for the theatrical interpretation of ‘political’! I just think everything is a political act so our work is political – but only because it’s political to give respect and attention to people and their lives, not because we have a message to deliver. We’ll leave that to Royal Mail.”

Where did that attitude develop? Norris and Hamilton met at their youth theatre under the leadership of Caroline Leslie, now Head of Acting at LAMDA. Norris puts it directly: “We owe it all to our youth theatre.” There they learned theatrical values of practicalities, like being on time, and that “the way to learn about theatre was to be inside it, making it, not just watching and reading.” What advice would they give to young theatre makers? “Simply to make it. That’s all there is to it, I think, you have to just make some work and make some more.”

All that’s left when you’ve come through the joys of discovering and working on a play, finding your company’s values, putting on workshops, marketing, talking to journalists, and just trying once in a while to be a “source of positivity and calm” is the play itself. Skerries is “made out of glancing blows, lives intertwining with each other and then unwinding again and flowing on.” Norris continues, “And I feel very strongly that that’s what life is like. We weave in and out of each other, people appear and disappear, ships passing and so on. And that changes us, but it’s also just the landscape we pass through. I think the play expresses what that’s like beautifully.”

German Skerries is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 2 April and is then on tour. The Orange Tree Theatre offers £12 tickets to Under 30s on Monday to Thursday evenings.

Photo by Manuel Harlan.