Playwright Meredydd Barker describes the journey that brought him to write his new play which imagines the relationship between husband and wife Nye Bevan and Jennie Lee.
Back in late nineteen seventies Pembrokeshire, in the shadow of the Cold War military base in Brawdy, I stood in my school playground and called a girl a bad thing. I was almost immediately busted by a politburo of dinner ladies and marched to the office of Big G, the headmaster. My usual defence was at hand: I didn’t mean to say it. This was, of course, a lie. But what was undoubtedly true of the insult used was that I didn’t have a clue what it meant.
This is true of playgrounds the world over. Children hurl slurs and slights at one another without giving a thought to what’s actually being said. And what is true of playgrounds is true of the degraded political landscape now. Politicians seem to behave like children with the exception that they know exactly what they’re saying when they lie and why they’re saying it: to obfuscate the political lexicon for their own – mostly – reprehensible ends. You get to an age where you think you understand what certain political terms mean. But then you’re commissioned to write a play about two Socialist icons, and you ask yourself: do I know why there’s a left and right in politics? Do I know what we mean by fascism and communism and the difference – and similarities – between the two? How has the present post-truth atmosphere of dissonance that is promoted through the media affected my political vocabulary? But Nye and Jennie could define those things because doing so was their stock in trade. It was essential that I understand the language in the way that they understood it. In other words, I took the view that, politically, I didn’t know what I was talking about. I could hold my own as a crackerjack philosopher in the pub, but do so on the page was nowhere near good enough. So I did some research.
You read a book on Democratic Socialism for example. You then read a book on Democratic Socialism that has been written as an argument against the first book you read. Then you read a book that doesn’t agree with either of those books. But its only by cross referencing like this do you discover what you actually think yourself. You are on the road to making up your own mind. You’re not stacking shelves with facts to pull down when needed. A play makes different demands. Plays come from the back of the mind. To know what you think, you have to admit what you feel. I was feeding my subconscious until the play came forward of its own accord. And for the play that knowledge acts like the foundation of a house. You can’t see it but you know it’s there because the house isn’t falling over.
Nye and Jennie is the story of man and wife who happen to become Socialist royalty. It’s about both their personalities but it’s also about that third personality that’s created when a couple come together. It’s the story of how much pressure they were put under, not only by political opponents but by people who were allies and friends. It sees them on their own, their public lives put under private scrutiny. These are people who transformed millions of lives to the good. In one way or another they saved lives and enhanced lives and continue to do so. But personally they paid a heavy price. Because if love is a theme then it follows that grief is there as well.
For many politicians their vision of the future is based on promoting hate for the present while suggesting that the solution lies in recreating the past, a past that never existed. Nye and Jennie both learned from the past and from other people, and cultures, and used that experience to create a possibilty of the future now, and by persuading people to follow them. That’s how the NHS was created. That’s how the Open University was brought to life. Today politicians pay lip service to the future but they don’t have the imagination to truly inspire people. It’s much easier to be glib and scare people then convince them that you’re the solution to the problem when the truth is, more often than not, it’s the politicians and their dogma that have caused the trouble.
But the process has not been about me looking for Nye and Jennie on my own. Theatr Na Nog’s artistic director, Geinor Styles and I have worked together for over two years on this project. We’ve been to see plays that might provoke new avenues of thought, compared notes on books, wondered how blindly ruthless history can be when someone of such stunning accomplishment as Jennie Lee can be so easily forgotten; and we’ve talked at great length about not only what Nye and Jennie meant when they were at work, but what their complex legacy means to today’s society.
Earlier this year the process was given a wholly new dimension when we were joined by the actors Gareth John Bale and Louise Collins. It’s a poor playwright who refuses to listen to the people tasked with putting flesh and blood to the words. Some rather profound questions have been asked of Geinor and myself by their interpretation of the script. Personally, I think the process of answering those questions never really stops.
And now I remember. Headmasters like Big G would sometimes give informal lectures to older pupils. The subjects would be varied, but were usually centred around the basic life skills one might need after finishing school. Big G frightened me at the time. He was a forbidding man. But I know now that he was of gentle heart. I’d forgotten the day he stood there, his voice hoarse with emotion, eyes red with tears as he told us about his hero, Aneurin Bevan.
For more information on Nye and Jennie visit here.
Image credit: Simon Gough