The understated doorway had once been a portal to one of the most important arts venues in Europe, a place which for twenty-odd years hosted a steady stream of audiences and artists. Now the venue where Barker's first play had been produced while still a student, and which, like so many others of her generation, opened her up to the possibilities of what theatre could be, lay locked up and empty after it was forced to close down earlier this year following Glasgow City Council's decision not to renew its late licence on the advice of Police Scotland.
“I feel grief-stricken by it,” Barker says of the closure of The Arches late in our conversation while reflecting on her roots as a writer and artist. “I feel it in a very personal way, and when I got off the train at Central Station it was really sad to see it so stricken. The support The Arches gave to me and to everyone who ever worked there was so important in terms of the outward looking thing that they had, so it felt like it was part of a bigger scene beyond. Everything I've ever done came from The Arches, so it feels like a very personal loss.”
While Glasgow City Council's role in the demise of The Arches was crucial, it's probably coincidence that Barker's contemporary update of Ghosts is set against a backdrop of local politics, with the main character Helen Alving a Highland councillor and seemingly model citizen whose carefully constructed respectable veneer masks a murky world of corruption in high places. Where Ibsen's original shocked nineteenth century society with its revelations of immorality and inherited sexual disease in a way that modern audiences can often be left wondering what all the fuss is about, Barker introduces a back-drop of addiction and institutionalised child abuse that sounds troublingly current.
“In lots of ways Ghosts is the most dated of Ibsen's plays,” Barker says of a piece first performed in Chicago in 1882 by a touring Danish company. “When Andy Arnold at the Tron first rang me up out of the blue and said he wanted to do Ghosts, but with a more modern approach, we talked a lot about its relevance, and how to make the religious conservatism that runs through the play more relevant to today.”
Barker initially thought about looking at the contemporary Catholic church, but turned instead to the political world, and how private indiscretions can eventually come to light as part of a very public disgrace.
“In the original,” says Barker, “syphilis is this inescapable physical thing that sums up this idea of the sins of the fathers, but in my version I wanted it to be a psychological inheritance, so there's this history of abuse, and the son is going to inherit that from his father. There's a thing there as well about hypocrisy and how that relates to power.”
Such a change might sound like a fairly hefty dramatic leap, but while Barker begs to differ, neither is she attempting to cause similar shockwaves to how Ghosts was first received in 1882.
“Shock's a funny word,” she says, “and I’m not really sure there's a huge amount of worth in it. I don't feel any kind of duty to shock, but there's so much in the press just now about powerful people abusing people who aren't as powerful that it felt quite natural to do it this way. It was a struggle going through some pretty horrible material about abuse, but I wanted to try and work on it from the inside of the characters rather than the outside.”
The last time Barker worked with Arnold was in 2009 on Monaciello, a very Arches-like work performed in a network of underground rooms at Naples Theatre Festival.
“I suppose Monaciello was pretty dark,” says Barker, “and that's maybe why Andy though of me for Ghosts. He said it's a dark piece and he knew I could do dark, but I'd just had a baby and was all love and happiness, so that really wasn't the place I was I when I began writing it.”
It's telling that it was Arnold who approached Barker to adapt Ghosts. Back in 2000, the boot was on the other foot when Barker and fellow University of Glasgow student Jackie Wylie first approached the then artistic director of The Arches with the idea of putting on a play Barker had written.
“We knew absolutely nothing about how to do it,” Barker reflects, “but we pretended we were professional theatre people. Andy must've known we were lying, but he let us put it on anyway.”
The play, Dead Letter, led to both Barker and Wylie developing a long-term relationship with The Arches, with Wylie eventually taking over from Arnold as Arches artistic director following his departure to run The Tron at the other end of Argyle Street in 2008. Barker went on to write Dead Pan with Rob Evans, and, with Faultline, the ad hoc company that produced Dead Letter, No Ghosts Expected, with both shows appearing in 2001.
While Barker left Glasgow in 2002, in 2006 she contributed a piece called Bernie to Spend A Penny, The Arches' fifteenth anniversary toilet cubicle-set compendium of five-minute plays. The same year, Barker wrote The incredible Human Heart Machine Part 1 (A Personal History) and Pit, which she followed up with Tongue Lie Tight a year later and Cria in 2008.
“I just kept going back to The Arches,” says Barker. “I loved it, and although I did stuff at the university theatre, The Arches certainly felt like it was the only home for me at the time. I suppose what Dead Letter did was give me the confidence to make my own work and just to do it, and eventually, through Pit and other things, I made contacts elsewhere.”
Having decamped to Hertfordshire, Barker embarked on a stint with the Royal Court Theatre in London, before having plays produced at Soho Theatre and the Sherman in Cardiff. Up until recently she also ran Feral, a site-specific based theatre company performing fantastical fairy-tale-based works in off-beat venues including a multi-storey car park.
Up until ghosts Barker thought she'd left playwriting behind, but once approached, “became excited again, and said yes against my better judgement.
“Every time I looked at the play from a different perspective I found the question of responsibility coming up,” she says. “The whole idea of turning a blind eye, allowing things to happen and not being bothered to stand up and challenge things we know are wrong kept coming up as an important issue. I was thinking about that from quite a personal perspective, about how people collude in various things to maintain a certain sense of security by trying to protect people they love or think they love, and how damaging that collusion can be.
“I think I'm always interested in, and I keep on coming back to, the potential we all have to make horribly wrong decisions born out of love, and how often these really bad decisions can have an even worse effect on things, and how our decisions to protect someone can lead to our demise.”
Ghosts, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, October 7-24.
The Herald, October 6th 2015