Friday, 27 November 2015

INTERVIEW - Liz Stevenson, director of Barbarians at the Young Vic

THE lives of three young men in 1970s Lewisham are featured in a new production of Barrie Keeffe's play Barbarians.
The show, which has just opened at the Young Vic is made up of Keeffe's trilogy, Killing Time, Abide With Me and In the City and follows Jan, Paul and Louis as they navigate their way through a society riven with unemployment, racism and rejection.
Over the course of three consecutive summers we see how after leaving school the lads want to earn some money and belong to something that makes their “blood bubble”, something like football.
Instead petty crime provides an outlet for their frustration and as they search for a way to belong, their close bond is threatened and their lives take very different turns.
It is being directed by rising star Liz Stevenson who is the winner of this year's JMK Award, a prize awarded annually by the Waterloo-based theatre to nurture young talent.
It is made by the JMK Trust which was founded in memory of up and coming director James Menzies-Kitchin to give practical learning opportunities to young theatre directors of similar ability and vision.
The JMK Award allows one such director a year to stage their own production of a classic text on the Young Vic stage.
"As part of the process for the JMK award we were all asked to choose a play and I chose Barbarians as I tend to go for plays that have working class voices," Liz tells me during a break in rehearsals.
“There is a real grit and humour and an edge to those sorts of plays with characters that feel accessible and this particular one really appealed to me.
“I was really drawn to the quality of the writing, the story these young men go through and their characterisation as well as the energy you feel when you read and see it.
“I am so excited about it because it’s such an amazing opportunity to be able to direct such a great play on a stage like the Young Vic. I’m very lucky because it’s difficult to break into this industry and put on a professional show.
“This award gives you a chance to work with a team, have proper rehearsal space and support. It’s a brilliant opportunity.”
The play may have been written 40 years ago but Liz says it’s still as relevant today with its themes of inequality in society, gender, race and class.
"It could easily have been set today,” she says. “It’s about three young men – two aged 16 and one aged 18 – growing up at a time of high unemployment, when racism was expected and when there were few opportunities.
“They are best friends and leave school at the height of the unemployment crisis. Like many of their age they mess about, having a banter, and get up to no good - looking for cars to nick, that kind of thing.
“The audience gets taken on a journey not just around Lewisham but we also see where their lives take them over three consecutive summers.
"It’s full of energy with references to punk rock and the Sex Pistols so it’s fun too. What's really clever about the writing is that the darkness creeps up on you as you see their struggle to fit in to society.
“They are all desperate to belong to something and there is nothing there for them.
“It’s tragic really because these are people with so much to give but yet they get swept away down dangerous and unhealthy avenues.
"It does make me sad because you can see that some things haven’t changed - there is still high youth unemployment, especially in Lewisham and for some life is a real struggle.
“I’m from Lancashire and while I see that London is an exciting city I’m struck by how close together the rich and poor are. On one corner there are incredible town houses and then next door there are run down estates.
“It’s a bit of an us and them situation and that is what these young lads are faced with.
“However, although it sounds so contemporary with the language used, when I did some research on the play I realised a lot has changed for the better. The concept of racism in the 1970s was widely accepted as OK but since then there has since been a massive shift for the better although there is still a way to go."
And Liz says that despite the darkness within the play there is a lot of humour too and hopes audiences will be entertained as well as informed.
"I love that theatre informs us and we can question what we see," she says. "But I also think that theatre is there to entertain. It should be enjoyable, an experience that people should be excited by and want to come back to.
"Theatre is something that most explores what it means to be a human being. We present one element of humanity that people will go away and talk about. We have always told each other stories and theatre is a way that puts it right there which is why I love doing it.
"I want people to come and see the play and think how relevant it is to today and the world right now, that it speaks to our situation right now.
"We have three fantastic characters at its heart and we want to follow them on their journey and find out what happens to them."
So are they Barbarians? You will have to come and see the play to find out.

Liz Stevenson won the JMK Award 2015 and directs Barbarians by Barrie Keeffe at the Young Vic in The Cut between November 27 and December 19. Tickets cost from £10. Visit or call the box office on 020 7922 2922 for full listings.

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