For half of his life, stand-up poet Luke Wright has been tying audiences up in knots with his punchy, often controversial, monologues in verse while, at the same time, mentoring other up-and-coming poets. He’s one of a new generation of angry young men (and women) who intend using words as a mirror to reflect humanity’s flaws and comic foibles. Now, he’s turned his hand to playwriting and, after a brief regional tour, his debut work, What I Learned From Johnny Bevan, is heading for the Soho Theatre. Paul Couch caught up with him.
So Luke, What I Learned From Johnny Bevanat the Soho for a three-week stint. I know you’ve been touring it around the regions for a while. Any qualms about showing it to theüber critical London literati?
No, not at all! I’ve got no qualms about it. It’s a great space to be, the Soho, and a lot of my friends live there. It’s great to get it to the city for an extended run – give it the showcase it deserves. I don’t think it’ll fare any less well in London; it’s quite a London show in a way. The show’s set in London in parts.
The trailer seems to be – not London-centric exactly – but it sits quite nicely in the Capital’s culture.
Yeah. I thought it was quite nice to have the trailer for the London run because it’s talking about London. It’s almost like the opening credits of a film – I imaginethe camera spiralling down slowly bringing the main character in and, in so doing, starting to touch upon some of the themes that’ll be at play in the forthcoming narrative.
Tell us about Johnny Bevan and Nick Burton
The protagonist, Nick Burton, is a nice middle-class kid from North Essex, a bit wet behind the ears, and he goes off to university full of hope – misdirected hope about how university’s a turning point – he was going to be about finding people like himself; he’s going to embrace art and culture and politics, all those things, but he didn’t know how to do it. This is the mid-90s and he falls in with the usual crowd of lads like those he used to hang out with in Sixth Form. They were alright but he wanted more, you know? Then he sees this guy, Johnny Bevan, perform a poem at an open-mic night and Bevan is quick, smart, mercurial – he’s from an east London council estate and he’s everything Nick wants to be. He’s clever and witty, good-looking and confident and they form a friendship and Johnny introduces Nick to all those things he wants.
They watch Blair come to power together in ‘97 and all that optimism. They spend a glorious summer together in Johnny’s mum’s flat. Then something happens [we’ll have to see the play to find out what, Wright tells me] and the show is told in flashback and Nick is now a 35-year-old journalist going to cover the launch of this new urban festival called “Urbania”, set on this abandoned council estate, sort of like a “poverty theme park”. When the journalists arrive, it all looks vaguely familiar!
You cite your friend John Cooper Clarke as an inspiration in your own career. Can we draw any parallels from that story?
John’s one of many poets who’ve inspired me over the years. We tour together and so that comparison gets made a lot. I’ve known him for a long time, since I was 17, so for half my life really. Actually much longer than that. I’ve known him since before I became a poet, he was just this interesting, weird bloke you used to see around Colchester and everyone used to try and talk to him. Yeah, he’s an influence but I don’t know what parallels you would draw. I think he did a really important thing for poetry generally. As an individual artist, he wrote some great stuff, of course, but he took poetry places where it perhaps hadn’t been before. He blazed a trail that many people have been able to follow.
Many people said the same about [Roger] McGough – every generation of artists take their art-form in certain directions. The next generation comes along and follows in their footsteps but then takes it into other places. There’s parts of my career that are very different to what John Cooper Clarke did. He never habitually went to the Edinburgh Festival; he hasn’t created theatre shows of his work. They’re routes I’ve gone down because I’ve been inspired by different people. My career, like everyone else’s career, is a patchwork quilt of different influences. Not just creatively, but logistically. There’s no career path in this game. You have to look towards other people and say “Oh, he’s done that – that’s interesting!” Your career becomes a hybrid of many different influences.
This is being termed as a debut theatre work. Your poems are often quite lengthy and involve larger than life characters. How does this differ?
It’s the first continuous single story that I’ve done. The longest poem I’d done before this was 20 minutes, so therefore it allows me to go into so much more depth and spend longer on each scene, bringing the audience up and then taking them down and up again. You really get to play with dramatic structures a lot more. Also it’s in the first person and I’m playing a character of Nick so technically I’m acting in it, [laughs] so quite whether this is acting or performance, I’m not sure. But I’m not Luke Wright when I’m on stage, I’m Nick Burton, so that’s a big difference.
You took it to Edinburgh last year, has it changed any between then and now?
It changed an awful lot in the lead-up to Edinburgh. But I think we finally got it locked down to a place where we were happy with it. I guess it’ll still evolve slightly and each performance will change slightly. It’s just a process you go on. Sometimes you reach peaks at certain bits. There are certain bits where I’m think I’m getting better and better and there are other bits where my best performance of it is behind me now! I don’t have the discipline of an actor so I have to find ways to keep it fresh.
We remember of course seeing John Cooper Clarke, John Hegley and Craig Charles on TV in the 80s, but TV seems to have been ditched as a medium of choice in favour of radio and stage. Any reason for that?
I think radio and stage were always more natural homes for spoken word performance poetry. Craig Charles was the Poet-In-Residence for the Wogan show for a while. I think television hasn’t really caught up with the explosion of live literature. It’s so much bigger and so much more popular now than it was just 10 years ago. There just isn’t the activity on TV to reflect that. We’ve seen pilots crash and burn along the way and every week you hear about some new TV project or other but no-one’s really made it stick, yet. I think performance poetry, stand-up poetry, what every you want to call it – this thing I do – it could really benefit from a “Live at The Apollo-style” showcase of live talent. I think most of the TV pilots have been along the lines of making pop videos. I think it should be more like the comedy shows – a nice little comedy club, a good audience, and people doing sets rather than single poems. I like that cos it’d show me at my best!
So is poetry best read or listened to?
It depends on the poem! I think a lot of poems sound great read aloud, but some poems are just too much to take in on a listen, you want to look on the page; then some poems when you take them off the page fall a bit flat. Really good pieces work in both mediums. If I read Betjeman, I will always read Betjeman aloud to myself, but I’d probably read it in a different way than I would if I read Larkin, even though Larkin can work out loud. Sylvia Plath is renowned as a poet of the page but I her work’s so graphic, so I really will read it out loud, like a spell or incantation or something. It really varies. At the end of my gigs I sell books and CDs and people come up to me and go “Oh I don’t want a book – I want you to read it to me!” It’s horses for courses.
You can’t nominate yourself but who’s the poet’s poet and why?
Who it the poet’s poet!? The poet’s poet is probably someone like Luke Kennard or Ross Sutherland. They’re the sort of poets that poets tend to like themselves. The poet’s poet has to be clever and a bit difficult. You want to look at someone who’s very widely respected among their peers. I think someone like Luke Kennard. Everyone I know likes Luke!
What I Learned From Johnny Bevanis currently touring and will open at the Soho Theatre, London, running from 22 February – 12 March (not 28 Feb, 6, 10 March).
Luke Wright will also be co-curating the Poetry Stage once again at Latitude Festival2016.