Adam Somerset reviews Barney Norris’ The Wellspring, a transcript of conversations between him and his father, composer David Owen Norris.
In March 2014 two big beasts of theatre criticism were in Cheltenham. They were at the town’s Everyman Theatre to see a play Visitors. Michael Billington’s review of March 9th opened with an unusual observation. “Barney Norris is a young man in his mid-20s,” he wrote, “I mention this because what instantly strikes me about his first full-length play is its extraordinary understanding of the stresses and strains of old age and its highly unfashionable tribute to married love.”
Charles Spencer, now retired, but another critical grandee, wrote on 7th March: “This is the first full-length play by Barney Norris and it is an absolute beauty, by turns funny, tender and desperately sad. It is also a work that will strike resonant chords with many, since it concerns the cruel affliction of dementia.” In 2018, Barney Norris was playwright for the third production to be staged at Nicholas Hytner’s theatre, the Bridge, next to Tower Bridge. Laurie Sansom was director and the award-winning Welsh actor Sion Douglas Young played the lead. For a thirty-year old dramatist it does not get better.
Barney Norris is the son of composer David Owen Norris. The elder Norris has a crisp Wikipedia entry with a list of his compositions. This book’s subtitle is “Conversations with David Owen Norris” and it is just that, a transcription of conversations between father and son.
The learning of the two co-authors is deep and wide. Its index of 9 pages impresses: Joseph Addison and Matthew Arnold to Yeats and Pinchas Zukerman. But dip into the index at random and an entry reads: “Tom Stoppard – The Invention of Love”. Sir Tom is a big figure, dramatic and intellectual, with a career of half a century behind him. The Invention of Love was his play of 1997 about A.E. Housman. It is a dense piece of work about mortality, the classics, poetry.
The text in The Wellspring (page 107) reads:
Reading plays is an important part of experience. I keep meaning to get a copy of Stoppard’s the Invention of Love, which I saw just once at the Oxford Playhouse.
An important text for both of us- I never saw Richard Eyre’s original production, but I did also see a revival at Salisbury. Four or five times!
And benefited from that, I’m sure.
The dialogue form has an honourable pedigree. But it needs editing to make form and meaning. The Wellspring suffers from a categorical error. Writing is not made from slabs of spoken speech. Son and father are sadly no Socrates and Glaucon.
So letting it fall open randomly on three pages:
Page 17, its opening: “Perhaps one of the propositions woven into the fabric of this book is that in order to begin to understand someone, you have to understand where they came from, the place where the river rises. Could you begin by telling me a little of your own family?”
Page 24: “You’re absolutely right- but I was fascinated recently to read that the only time Thatcher ever suffered a defeat in the Commons was over the Shops Bill, in the year of my birth, 1987. This was her attempt to introduce Sunday trading, and she was seen off by a rebellion from Christian backbenchers. The idea of that vote not passing seems very outlandish from where we’re standing, and indeed the idea of that lobby having that power again is quite difficult to imagine.”
Page 114: “To me, Bernstein seems to have been an extraordinary figure. Music is quite good at packaging people as geniuses – Rattle and Barenboim and Dudamel might be contemporary examples – but it must be extraordinary to have been working in the same trade as Bernstein. In the way that it thrills me to be in the same trade as Conor McPherson, say, or Martin McDonagh. Was he the pre-eminent influence of his era? Or does it look like that to me because I wasn’t there, but admire his work?”
“Perhaps music was always too wide a field to talk about anyone being pre-eminent. But I know Michael Billington has talked about the equivalent period in theatre being absolutely and dominated by one or two voices – Pinter and Beckett, really – as opposed to today’s theatre, which is much more pluralistic and really more like several art forms interacting, when you look at the range of influences.”
All three passage sag with too many words. The spoken word is not prose. The book comes without notes or references. Added to this, the second quotation is false on three counts. Firstly, the defeat in the Commons took place in 1986, April 14th. Secondly, the Conservative Governments of 1979-1991 were defeated on three other occasions, December 15th 1982, July 19th 1983 and March 13th 1990. Thirdly, the politics are wholly false. It is true that the Shops Bill itself received much lobbying from religious groups but Christian observance did not command a majority in the Commons. The more powerful opposition came from the employment interest who considered that the move would disrupt family patterns and childcare.
This item of fact-checking is not a recondite piece of history. Corroboration of its falsity took less than ten seconds’ research.
The third quotation has no reference and reads like a crude simplification. It is certainly not how Michael Billington represents it in his substantial State of the Nation (Faber & Faber, 2007). In chapter 4, “The Ground Shifts”, he makes Brecht the most influential figure of the modern era. In chapter 5, “Theatre of Opposition”, he writes about the Becks, Jim Haynes, Charles Marowitz, Thelma Holt and Ed Berman. Marat/Sade, neither Beckettian nor Pinteresque, he calls the crucial event in the culture.
There is a book here on music, art and experience but it remains to be written. A good editor would shed a large proportion of the verbal blubber. The Wellspring is, to borrow a phrase from Ford Madox Ford, the saddest book I have ever read. It is the writer as Icarus, who flies too close to the sun.
The Wellspring is available now from Seren Books.