Barney Norris talks us through the history and the present of his astonishing play...
I wrote Every You Every Me for Salisbury Playhouse over the course of 2014 and 2015. At that time, it had a personal resonance because of the landscape I was exploring: it was developed out of a year wandering round Wiltshire, my home county, and talking to people there. That said, the subject material itself was all quite new to me - a research project rather than something that had grown out of my own life.
Two years later, I’m revisiting the project and I find my relationship with the work has been inverted. This time, the play is being co-produced by Oxford Playhouse and Reading Rep, so the geographical link is severed, as the play prepares to make its way into a new landscape. Meanwhile, the story itself has come to seem like a terrible warning, the announcement in my work of something that was going to rise up and drown my life not long after the first run at Salisbury finished. I’m not particularly minded to go into the specifics of that development, except to say that I now know ever such a great deal about mental health provision in the UK, and so this most exploratory of pieces has become intensely personal to me.
That’s a big part of why I feel fortunate to have this opportunity to re-engage with the work. These days I read it all differently. I gasp when the news is imparted quite early in the play (as it was to me quite early in the research process, by a senior Wiltshire child psychiatrist) that at the age of 18, Wiltshire mental health services no longer provide support to anyone who presents with anything less than a psychosis. This rules out over 90% of the ‘service users’ (at least they don’t call them customers yet – in Hampshire, researching another play in 2016, I was told by the head of a town council that ‘public services are not a right’, so I feel sure it’s round the corner, but it seems some sense of decorum prevents us from crossing that linguistic Rubicon for a little while longer). I’ve trawled local authorities looking for another that abandons those with anxiety or depression in the same way, to no avail. All the same, the line was said to me, so it went in the play. These days it doesn’t surprise me when Wiltshire mental health services turn up in the national press. I only wonder whether the commissioning of the play, which was funded by Wiltshire County Council, came about because someone knew there were problems in need of airing.
This isn’t an issue play. It’s a human story about the pressures of systems on kids. And it’s about the impossible, ultimately juvenile and escapist dream of finding a way to not take part in the great swindle we all feel ourselves falling in line with in the years we grow up: the pursuit of money, home ownership, 5 a day. The assurance that if we save enough, and take sensible holidays, we will eventually be able to afford to die. But it just so happens to be set against the backdrop of the great growing tragedy of our cultural moment. (Or one of them – obviously, a shrinking welfare state will look like child’s play if we really are going to make the world uninhabitable for ourselves).
An ebb tide has set in all over England, and what the generations before us fought to put in place is having the air let out of it. The NHS is the great crumbling symbol of that, and in the years bearing down on us, it looks set to suffer that rapid succession of strokes that sometimes accompany the end of a life. The damage of that will be felt by the people who need it. You, and me, and the kids in this play, and everyone else on these islands, and everyone else whose life put a brick in place of the inheritance we are presently squandering. Whose memory is insulted and traduced a little more each day by the psychotic dementia afflicting our culture. So I offer the play above all as a lament for us, for what we’re losing.