David Bryant talks to Luke Wright about his recent, critically acclaimed, theatrical poetry show What I Learned From Johnny Bevan, the accompanying book of verse and hears him agitate passionately for greater political engagement and activism
Luke Wright has long been an important figure on the British live poetry circuit. Arguably responsible for inventing “themed” theatrical poetry shows with the help of his cohorts in Aisle 16 — a show that presented the artform as an ironic series of motivational business talks — he’s also been broadcast on Channel 4 and is in the rare position of being able to earn a living purely from his popular live work alone.
What I Learned From Johnny Bevan is his current award-winning poetry show and book. Using the expensive and offensive fictional festival Urbania on abandoned sink estate the Grooms as the springboard for its narrative, it’s an energetic yet heartrending piece of work.
Flashing back to a 1990s student friendship between the comfortable, middle-class Colchester boy Nick and the Grooms estate dwelling Bevan, it reveals what happens to their lives in the aftermath of Blair’s victory.
Referencing political and personal abandonment, it shines a piercing light on the optimism and thwarted expectations of the period.
While our present media backdrop often consists of “centrist” Labour politicians complaining about being betrayed by their party, Bevan expresses the abandonment the working classes felt as Labour sought to appeal to the middle ground, while distorting the situation through the lens of satire.
Wright is quick to explain his methods: “Poverty theme parks and poverty porn exist, so I’ve sent them up... If my work was visual it would be in the vein of Hogarth. Everything I write is a bit hyperreal.”
He is, however, cautious and aware of his responsibilities in how the situation is represented.
“I really liked one of the proposed book designs [of a high-rise estate], it looked properly Britpop, but we would have been doing exactly what we were satirising… the cover we’ve finally chosen looks sufficiently honest,” he explains. “I had to be careful, because I didn’t want to use the iconography to sell it.”
The show doesn’t cower away from the rise of Ukip. Luke is from Essex, which is usually portrayed as aspirational and middle class, but the popularity of Ukip among the working classes there is obvious.
“The north-south divide doesn’t exist in the same way, there’s a much bigger divide around the edges of the country, areas like South Wales, the East Coast, and Kent,” he believes. “People feel abandoned and there’s deprivation.”
“Obviously, voting for Nigel Farrage is like a turkey voting for Christmas... but he suggests an alternative and people think ‘He can’t be much worse’”.
I mention that the same could be argued about Blair. He set out a comparatively right-wing stall, but many people like Bevan still chose to believe he represented them.
“Well, in the earliest drafts of the show Bevan was anti-Blair from the start. I think it gets forgotten that people in the Labour Party were initially sceptical… but by 1997 they pulled together, because the thought of Conservatives being in power for more than two decades was awful.”
“People also argue Blair was ‘just a Tory,’ but — without defending him — things are worse now. Ask anyone working in mental health care or a Sure Start centre... Labour unsealed some dangerous doors with academies and PFI, but they used them in a different way to the Tories. The problem is that when you get these ideas out of the box, you can’t legislate against how the next person will use them.”
Wright is politically active, an ex-Green Party member who rejoined Labour prior to Corbyn’s victory. Both he and his wife’s votes were rejected during the leadership election, which he dismisses as “paranoid” — “I’m obviously not Toby Young” — and while he feels Corbyn’s leadership is “important,” arguing it will allow the party to reposition themselves in the long term, he’s doubtful he will become prime minister.
He feels the mainstream British public respond poorly to “humourless” leaders, and references Corbyn’s reactions in Parliament, in particular to the recent “Who are you?” incident.
“The first rule of crowd management is if you get angry with a heckler, you’ve lost. Either you come back with something better or you laugh it off. I agree he’s been hit below the belt, but people who don’t support him will just say ‘He didn’t handle that very well’.”
And what would Bevan make of Corbyn’s rise?
“I don’t know… By the end he’s become such a class tribalist that he might hold stock in the whole ‘Corbyn is just another Islingtonite do-gooder’ perspective.
“But I almost want to shake Johnny and say ‘Yes, you were betrayed, but all organisations will evolve and change, and you can be part of that movement!’”
Nothing is resolved as simply as that, though, and the play — as ambitious a piece of epic political poetry as we’ve seen since Tony Harrison’s V — draws a different conclusion.
What I Learned from Johnny Bevan by Luke Wright is available from Penned in the Margins £9.99.