By Katrina ffiske
Barney Norris, acclaimed playwright and novelist, sets much of his work in and around Salisbury. His first novel, ‘Five Rivers Met on a Wooden Plain’, paints vivid portraits of five characters shattered by a car crash on Winchester Street, while his play ‘Echo’s End’ is focused on the edge of Salisbury Plain.
“I live in London now, but in my head, I live in Salisbury all the time,” Barney told me.
“Many of the characters in ‘Five Rivers Met on a Wooden Plain’ are inspired by colourful people I met while working at Costa Coffee in the Market Place. I went to school at Bishop Wordsworth’s, and I can still wander the streets in my mind seeing ghosts of the past. Then, obviously, having William Golding and Terry Pratchett as local authors inspired me to write.”
His most recent work is an adaptation of ‘The Remains of the Day’, by Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, which is touring and stopping in Salisbury from April 30 to May 11.
“It was a great honour to be asked by the artistic director of Northampton to adapt ‘The Remains of the Day’. Initially I was intimidated by the task, and I knew the play should be unlike the book or the film, or it shouldn’t exist.”
The novel tells the story of Stevens, an English butler, who reflects on years of devoted service to Lord Darlington, while driving to see Miss Kenton, the past housekeeper. It is set before and after the Second World War at a time of political conflict.
“I decided not to visit Ishiguro until I had worked on the script. The first draft was stodgy: in a book it’s easier to get into the mind of a character who’s thinking in the present and past, but on stage it can be dull. Then I had this lightbulb moment to have the two time frames interweaving on stage.
“I spent four hours with Ishiguro, and he was happy for me to bring my own ideas to the piece. He was an inspiration and I felt privileged to have had the time with him, as the next day he won the Nobel Prize for Literature and he was in great demand.”
Much of Barney’s work is based on family experiences, so I wondered how hard it was to work on something that didn’t have any familiar references.
“I actually found a point of access for myself in the story. My great-great-grandfather was a driver for a gentleman farmer in Northampton, and when the farmer went away, he was allowed to borrow the Daimler. This mirrored Stevens, who drives west across the country to re-meet the housekeeper. In the play, I have him driving a Daimler rather than a Ford, a small nod to my ancestor.”
Barney is thrilled the play is coming here: “Especially as Ishiguro told me as a young man he used to hitch-hike to the city from his family home in Sussex to Salisbury. In the novel, Stevens’s first stop on his journey towards the woman he allowed to get away is Salisbury.”
Once the script was completed and rehearsals were under way, what input did Barney have in the play?
“I’m a great believer that you should be happy with the final script and I have complete faith in the actors and director. If you question the script with actors, you’re almost doubting your work. I enjoyed working with Christopher Haydon and all the actors, but just as Ishiguro let me adapt his novel, I had to let go and let the team do their thing. I think it is a fantastic production.”
Barney’s next novel, ‘The Vanishing Hours’, a ghost and love story about two strangers who meet in Devizes, is out on July 18.
‘The Remains of the Day’ stars Niamh Cusack and Stephen Boxer in the lead roles.
An Out of Joint and Royal & Derngate Production in association with Oxford Playhouse.
Salisbury Playhouse, April 30 – May 11