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Barnes’ People shares four monologues by the prolific Peter Barnes. With a star-studded cast and a variety of topics from death to mental illness, it is a complex piece of work allowing the viewer to nosedive into Barnes’ work. Filmed at the Theatre Royal in Windsor, the viewer experience is calming and Max Pappenheim scores the text with a soothing soundscape daydream.
We begin with an elderly gentleman taking center stage in a holographic burial ground. He talks to you. You are Morris and Morris is dead. Matthew Kelly unravels the life story of Adams as soft cloud projections fill the auditorium. He tumbles through a variety of topics exploring a gentleman’s descent into old age and the subsequent loss of self. The burial ground Adams sits in will soon be uprooted to make way for brand new property development, spurring timeless anticapitalist narratives of injustice, “The poor get it first – even in death.” If it wasn’t for the spiritual tirade, closing the sequence to a rainstorm, Kelly’s softness could lay you to rest.
Rosa is by far the most poignant of the monologues. Jemma Redgrave performs as a doctor discussing residential housing for geriatrics from a series of documents on her desk. Barnes writes of how abject poverty leads to the disadvantaged elderly slowly dying in dark rooms that reek of urine. Rosa is angry because after years of trying to fight for some sort of justice, she has learnt that people are indifferent to the suffering of the poor, “I’m not crying; these are just tears.” Redgrave is immaculate as Rosa rants about her own struggle against a capitalist society built for straight white men who mark unmarried, childless women as failures. Rosa’s monologue is a heartbreaking account of how these “waiting rooms for death” slowly drain an elderly person until they are nothing but an exhibit of human suffering.
Billy and Me, however, has not aged as gracefully. In this monologue, we meet a schizophrenic ventriloquist artist who uses his puppets to externalise his voices. It is a grossly damaging piece of writing which feeds into the sensationalization of neurodivergent people. What worries me greatly is the lack of engagement with the source text. There are communities of artists with a variety of disorders who may inform and enrich a piece of work to explore how we can further our understanding of mental illness. Instead, we watch a man talking to his wooden puppets as if schizophrenia is not stigmatised enough in the media. Pieces of work like this perpetuate fears against those with complex disorders beyond their control. Sharing narratives of misunderstanding no longer appears innovative; it is damaging. Needless to say, it is not appropriate to draw comedy from someone’s psychotic symptoms and there is no viable excuse not to destigmatize narratives in 2021.
We finish on A True Born Englishman with a character so Conservative I almost spit out my tea watching. Adrian Scarborough monologues about the social prestige of Buckingham Palace, as the keeper of the first door and head footman. He talks of the distinctly British values of, “Obedience, humility, and silence.” It’s a hefty monologue with such a distinguished gentleman figure I can only imagine the fun Scarborough would have had in developing him. It raises indirectly political notions of the class system and how deeply rooted royalism truly is in British culture. I long to see how this piece will continue to age.
Barnes’ People is a complex array of undeniably strong performances. I can only imagine the inspiration other creatives will find in such important pieces of work.
Barnes’ People is playing online until 31 July. For more information and tickets, see Original Theatre Company online.