Without Aneurin Bevan and Jennie Lee, life in Britain during the post Second World War years would have been a lot different. This is something playwright Meredydd Barker realised when he was asked by the Neath, West Glamorgan-based Theatr Na Nog company’s artistic director Geinor Styles to write a play about the Welsh firebrand Labour minister and the Lochgelly-born miner’s daughter who was elected into Westminster as the UK parliament’s then youngest sitting MP.
Between them, Bevan and Lee changed the landscape of Britain into a seemingly more benevolent and enlightened society than what existed before. As the youngest member of Prime Minister Clement Atlee’s cabinet following the 1945 Labour landslide, Bevan was appointed Minister of Health, and was instrumental in the setting up of the National Health Service, set up to provide free medical care for all.
Almost twenty years later, Lee’s brief as Minister for the Arts in Harold Wilson’s Labour government of 1964 saw her widening the brief of Arts Council funding beyond London. She was also instrumental in developing the South Bank as a major site of arts institutions. Lee played a vital role too in setting up the Open University, with the aim of providing access to further education for everyone.
The play that resulted, Nye and Jennie, arrives in Edinburgh this weekend for the only dates in Scotland as part of Theatr Na Nog’s current tour. While Barker’s script inevitably touches on such seismic moments in British social history, it focuses more on the personalities of the two passionate people who drove these things and ended up sharing their lives together until Bevan’s passing in 1960. With a whirlwind of personal and political conflicts along the way, the play focuses on Nye and Jennie’s private lives beyond their public image.
“I wanted to focus on Nye and Jennie’s love for each other, and her immense sense of grief when he died,” says Barker. “Jennie was far more left wing than Nye was, and was more than a match for him. In public it might appear that she was overshadowed by him, but there were a lot of differences in how their relationship appeared in public and how it was in private. They were both really strong personalities, and I suppose one of the things the play looks at is how does the love these two people had survive their different personalities and different political views.”
In researching Nye and Jennie, Barker waded through Lee’s autobiographical account of her life with Bevan. He also read what he calls a “red-brick sized biography of Bevan by Michael Foot,” the former Labour Party leader who was elected to Bevan’s Ebbw Vale seat in a by-election following his friend and mentor’s death. Barker was also able to access first-hand experience close to home.
“I trained as a sculptor,” says Barker, “and a lot of my teachers had been at college in the late 1960s. Jennie Lee was a huge influence on them, so it’s been great to have the experiences of so many people around me to draw from. After that it was like a game of Ker-Plunk, putting everything down in the first draft and then gradually taking out cocktail sticks to keep the essence of the play. I suppose what the play is saying is that here’s two politicians who weren’t perfect, and who weren’t shy of admitting that, but neither were they shy about saying what they thought. It’s not just a story about two people. It’s a story about the Labour Party as well.”
Barker is one of a fertile wave of writers and theatre makers in Wales spear-headed by the likes of Gary Owen and Tim Price. He began writing while teaching at St Martin’s, and had a reading of an early version of his first play, The Rabbit, at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. The script was passed on to Everyman founder, former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company Terry Hands, who ended up directing it at the Mold-based Clwyd Theatre Cymru, where he was then in charge.
A Welsh-language play, Buzz, was toured by Sgript Cymru, who also produced Barker’s play, Acqua Nero, at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. Barker has also worked with Welsh guerrilla theatre company Dirty Protest, and is currently under commission to write several plays, including In One Boat Conveyed, about the Welsh NHS, for National Theatre Wales. A piece about the Syrian refugee experience in Wales was commissioned for the Sherman Theatre by outgoing artistic director and former Perth Theatre director Rachel O’Riordan.
Barker is also the artistic director of Narberth Youth Theatre, set up in the Pembrokeshire town where he now lives in 2011 with his wife Cherylee Barker, who he met while she was working at the Everyman.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Barker says of NYT. “Theatre can sometimes end up selfish and insular, but I think you’ve got to give something back. Cherylee knew how important the Everyman Youth Theatre had been, so we just said why don’t we start our own.”
For all the Welsh theatre scene seems lively, Barker is one of forty Welsh writers to sign a recent letter expressing concerns about National Theatre Wales, accusing it of ‘undermining’ Welsh artists, both by way of a lack of productions and a lack of Welsh artists involved in current and planned productions.
Barker describes the situation as “febrile,” although he stresses the amount of on-the-ground activity and “an actual willingness from artists themselves to get art and theatre on is astonishing.”
This grassroots approach seems to connect to everything that Nye and Jennie is about. This is something, he says, that audiences are also recognising.
“What’s been coming across,” he says, “is that people are getting an idea of what politicians can be like again at some point in the future.”
Barker says he can see an example of this in SNP MP Mhairi Black, who was elected to Westminster in 2015 aged twenty.
“She’s someone who’s not a career politician, but is there to serve the community she’s from. That’s not about ideology. It’s about knowing what’s right and what’s wrong and recognising what could happen. 17 and 18-year-olds who come and see the play recognise that. They see the real sacrifices good politicians can make and what politicians can achieve. There isn’t anyone in Britain who hasn’t been touched by what Nye and Jennie did, and hopefully this play can help show how people like them can help change things for the common good.”
Nye and Jennie, The Studio, Edinburgh, November 2-3.
The Herald, October 31st 2018