A First Sight of a Bright Talent

At First Sight, his first play, has been four years in the making – Oxford graduate and last year’s Drama Officer Barney Norris was always shy about showing his ‘awful work’ to anyone.

He needn’t have been so modest- At First Sight won the Drama Association of Wales’ One Act Play Competition of 2010, earned its author a place on the prestigious Royal Court Young Writers programme, is about to be published and will be premiered at the BT next week, before touring to London and Salisbury.

The play presents two characters, Jack and Holly, who reminisce about their short-lived holiday romance, trying to remember the details and recreate the beautiful moments before it all went wrong.
Norris describes the play as ‘simply, a love story. It’s also a play about memory – the attempt and the impossibility of getting back to a moment – how people live on multiple levels all at once in their heads. But at its core it’s about two people meeting and parting, in a great place’.

That place is Salzburg, which Norris visited 6 months before starting At First Sight, and he calls the play a ‘love letter to that city’. ‘In a way it’s the play’s central subject – the question of what they fall in love with – each other or the moment. And the moment is Salzburg.’ The script is brimming with beautifully evocative images of the mountains where Jack lives and Holly has gone to ski.

The title brings to mind the clichéd ideal of love at first sight, but, as Norris says, ‘love at first sight always implies the need for a second look.’ The many subtle contradictions in their memories lead us to question the truth of what we see, and bring out very poignantly the subjectivity of memory.

Norris says, ‘Emotion is just a release of chemicals. Certain occasions release the same kind of chemicals – the moment you realise you’ve sent the text to the wrong person and the moment when in a dream you fall off a cliff are the same emotion. So when you’re trying to think back to the moment when you first met that person, you’re inevitably reminded of those other times when you had the same emotional response. You can try to pin a thing down, but it gets lost in other thoughts.’ Hence Jack fondly recalls a birthday celebration together, while Holly quietly points out that they never shared a birthday.

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The play’s complex structure is influenced by the film Brief Encounter and the way it plays with the human mind, varying one’s emotional response to the same image by changing what is shown before it: ‘The opening scene [of Brief Encounter] is just boring, you’re wondering ‘why is this woman talking crap’? And then you get to the end and you’re crying, and it’s the same scene. It’s how you montage it.’

After having the play in his head for four years, I wonder how Norris feels about other people portraying it according to their own interpretation. He sees this as a positive: ‘Directors can see things you can’t. For the good of the play it’s actually really important that the characters weren’t how I imagined them.’

He describes being struck during the casting process by how people were reading his lines in a way totally different to how he’d imagined: ‘I didn’t realise there were any jokes in the play! I thought it was all quite serious and meaningful and sad, and then people were delivering these monologues with smiles on their faces!’

For Norris, theatre is collaborative, and describes the biggest kick he gets as ‘being in a room with these people who are so much better than you at what they do. What you’re imagining is so much better when other people bring things to it.’This is the philosophy behind the formation of his theatre company, Up in Arms, for as he says, ‘if you work repeatedly with people, you make more interesting work.’ This is the 12th play in which he has collaborated with director Alice Hamilton.

The future looks bright for Barney Norris. He’s already been commissioned to write a play for the Playhouse in Trinity term. He describes Call of the Wild as about ‘systems, clashing of cultures, political tectonics…and about a dog going on a journey.’ If it’s anything like At First Sight, it will be clever, moving, beautifully written and certainly a must-see.