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Award-winning performance poet Luke Wright takes to Lancaster to present his one-man play, written in verse that ‘belts along at a fair old pace’, about friendship, class and the legacy of new labour. I chatted to him to find out more about this intriguing concept.
What’s the play about?
It’s first and foremost about a friendship, two lads who share a platonic love. When I write about social issues I’m always looking for a way to meld the personal and political. I’m interested about how these events effect people in terms of how the macro affects the micro. One of my friends at university made what would now be considered a cliché political journey – from New Labour to UKIP. I disagree with him, obviously, but I’m interested in people and why they do the things they do.
And is that who the titular Johnny Bevan is?
Everyone has a mate who kind of drops off the radar – and that’s who makes up the character of Johnny Bevan. I was inspired by my friend Paul who I met at UEA, who was from a staunchly working class background in the centre of quite a middle class university. In some ways, I think he really enjoyed making the middle class kids feel uncomfortable, who liked him for his authenticity.
My play’s set in the late 90s, where there was an obsession with working class authenticity, the whole Oasis thing, and working class iconography was used to sell records. It was utterly commercialised. Paul had difficulties – he played up to this working class hero character, but I think he felt that everyone was looking at him. His whole life journey has been wrapped up, I think, with viewing himself as a working class person.
I think your idea of grounding politics with the personal definitely helps to make it seem more real, and relatable to people.
Definitely. Generally, people don’t care about politics, they care about relationships, and very few people live by their ideologies these days. I mean, the fact that Jeremy Corbyn’s second marriage broke up because his wife wanted to send their kids to a grammar school is quite rare. People will always put emotion and feeling above ideology.
You mention Corbyn, which seems relevant seeing as the play tackles and offers a critique of New Labour. What are your thoughts on the current plight of Labour today, when they’re in a similar identity crisis?
I voted for Corbyn because I wanted Labour to shift their discussions to the left, and I think he’s done that. Before, the conversation was very much taken up by the centrists, so much so that in the 2015 leadership election Corbyn was the left-wing wildcard. But in the most recent election, we had two candidates who both defined themselves as socialists; Corbyn and Owen Smith agreed on 95% of stuff, so I thought that was interesting.
I have concerns about the psychology of Corbyn though, as I don’t think he’s a compromiser, and politics is a series of dirty compromises, and it will always have to be. It has to serve my father, who’s way to the right of me, and people like myself. In order to even get elected, the leader will have to make compromises.
I worry a fair bit about Momentum as well, I think it’s a personality cult to have a whole organisation dedicated to the re-election of one individual, rather than of an ideology. What if Corbyn becomes decidedly the wrong person? They’re not a sinister organisation, but it seems strange to think of one organisation in support of on person, it’s not that democratic.
But I don’t have any answers; and that’s why the play is about two characters who are bashing out their ideas to each other! Shit is nuanced, basically.
So, there’s two characters in the play, but only one performer…how does that work?
It’s like storytelling, but when I’m speaking the bits that other people are saying, I change my voice, act it out. The whole thing is written in verse, so some bits are in balanced metre, and there’s some rhyming there, but other bits are in blank verse. Hopefully, it helps it sound beautiful, and moves the story along at a pace.
When did you start being interested in poetry?
I’d been writing lyrics and little poems in my diaries when I was fourteen, fifteen, and I did my first poetry gig when I was seventeen, and I’ve been gigging ever since! I’ve spent a long long time honing my craft. Sometimes I look back at my earlier work and kind of cringe. At uni, I was in creative writing society, and my friends were people like Ross Sutherland, Tim Clare and Joe Dunthorne, and we all spurred each other on. We kicked each other up the arse and made each other jealous. But I’m inspired by different things now.
And what are you reading at the moment that inspires you?
I’m reading some Russian poems, translations of some Mayakovsky stuff; Marlowe’s Diaries, by Roy Kendall; Luke Kennard’s new novel, The Transition (which isn’t out yet but I luckily got sent a preview copy!) and Alice Oswald’s latest collection, which is exquisite.
But I guess generally the writing that makes me who I am are the novels of Eveleyn Waugh, which I absolutely adore, and the poetry of John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, and John Cooper Clarke, whom I supported on tour and got on really well with. The BBC cut me out of a documentary on him though, the fuckers! I did a particularly good rendition of Psychle Sluts to camera as well.
Luke Wright: What I Learned from Johnny Bevan is at the Nuffield Theatre, 8pm on Thursday, Week 3. Tickets from £9 at lancasterarts.org.