Ahead of his performance of the epic poem, What I Learned from Johnny Bevan, at the Arts Centre, on November 23rd, Colchester Life and Luke Wright find themselves discussing definitions – of success, of one’s self and of his show.
Colchester born and educated Luke Wright has been described as “the funniest and most brilliant poet of his generation” and “the most celebrated live poet” working today. Before we even talk I have begun to fret on his behalf, that boy, that’s an awful lot of lot of hype to live up to. When I express my concerns Luke laughs wearily. The trouble is, he says, “if you believe the hype, then you have to believe the criticism.” But he concedes, “it’s nice to have people say nice things about you and they’re useful quotes to put on promotional flyers!" By anyone’s standards, though, I suggest, that kind of praise means you are officially a success? Again a slightly enervated chuckle. “My readership and audience is there, yes” he says. “I have to trust my artistic instincts, but I’m just lucky that what I write appeals to the audience I have. Definitions don’t matter. What matters is how a performance makes you feel.”
And while that may be true for his large and loyal following, already well-versed in his career across the Fringe Festival, Latitude and Radio 4, Luke was aware that it may not be the case for regional theatre managers when trying to sell the idea of his latest show. Narrated by Nick, a jaded music journalist, it recounts his life-changing friendship with a working class poet and the political upheaval surrounding their university years in the early Blair-era. What I Learned from Johnny Bevan, is an epic 8,000-word poem. It’s not spoken word and it’s not a one-man play. “I’m a poet,” Luke is unequivocal. “That’s how I make my living. There’s no denying that, but I had to couch it in terms people understand. Epic poetry sounds a bit much.” With reviews of the show bursting with terms like ‘pulsating’ and electrifying’, is it exhausting to perform, I wonder. “It is full-on and tiring,” Luke admits. “While the beginning in particular is funny…” He pauses, suddenly self-conscious. “Get me, ‘Oh, I’m so funny!’, but it is, yeah, and then the ending is more intense and serious. It’s cathartic.”
I wonder if performing at the Colchester Arts Centre in particular holds any special meaning for him – it’s well-documented that it was attending a poetry performance there as a 16-year-old that ‘changed everything’ and put him firmly on the pathway he is now so brilliantly ploughing. “I’m back at the Arts Centre at least twice a year,” Luke says. “We always do a gig there on the last Saturday before Christmas. [The Christmas Poetry Bash – already sold out I’m afraid, folks.] I mean, Anthony Roberts [the director] is the greatest man alive! He really changes lives. It’s a pleasure to play that venue.”
I ask if he’s still fond of Colchester, now living on the Suffolk/Norfolk border as he does. “Yeah! My opinion of Colchester has improved,” he tells me. “I think everyone should get out of where they’re from because then when you come back you realise it’s actually really nice.” I hazard a guess that he wasn’t so enamoured as a younger man. “I have a good connection with all of East Anglia but I didn’t like Colchester’s materialism as a teen. I think I felt an opposition to the mainstream. I had that anti-masculinity thing. I was interested in art. I was one of the grungers hanging out at the Hole in the Wall. But I don’t think those type of teenage tribes exist anymore. Everyone has access to so much more stuff – the sub-cultures don’t exist. That old-fashioned anti-mainstream view doesn’t apply anymore. I don’t think there is the need to define yourself by your choices anymore.”
And how would he define those the show appeals to, I ask. “It will appeal to anyone interested in British politics,” Luke answers, “not just left-wingers. It’s a story of friendship, university and the excitement of those times. It will appeal to anyone who likes a good story, anyone who’s had a friend that they’ve lost, in whichever way.”
I thank Luke, who is due on stage shortly after our conversation, and reflect that we can all relate to the loss of a friend, whether by tragedy or circumstance, and it is often the ones who most help us to find a new definition of ourselves - just as Johnny introduces Nick to a new world of poetry and politics - whose absence is most deeply felt.
Luke Wright’s What I Learned from Johnny Bevan is on at the Colchester Arts Centre on Wednesday, November 23rd on a pay what you can afford basis. Tickets are available here: http://www.colchesterartscentr...