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Q&A: Genevieve Barr

First Published 7 March 2016, Last Updated 14 March 2016

There are some plays that stay with you long after you’ve left your seat, that somehow bury their way into your psyche and leave you with a distinct sense that, in some small way, you’re not quite the same person you were when you went in. One of the successes of the National Theatre’s Temporary space has been programming productions that do just that, and from the sounds of its exemplary Edinburgh Festival Fringe reviews, The Solid Life Of Sugar Water is about to join the ranks.

Genevieve Barr is reprising her role as Alice whose intense, ever-changing relationship is unveiled, from first lust to a tragic miscarriage and the attempt to rediscover a connection after such a life changing event. Penned by Harry Potter And The Curse Child’s Jack Thorne and produced by theatre company Graeae, it’s billed as a “fully accessible” play, with innovative use of captioning and audio-description.

Fascinated both by how the show deals with this subject matter and its unique staging, we quizzed one half of its cast, Barr.

What attracted you to The Solid Life Of Sugar Water?

Well the names behind it were always going to tempt me; Jack Thorne is a phenomenal writer and I have been waiting for an opportunity to work with Graeae for years. But as an actor, when you read [The Solid Life Of Sugar Water’s] script it hurls you into an emotional vortex, one that you can’t escape from. You want to put it down but you can’t tear your eyes away. And when a play achieves that in the writing, then you can’t wait to see how it translates on stage. 

How do you deal with being in an emotionally demanding drama?

The way we have to because we’re human: by accepting its inevitability and not trying to fight against how the writing makes us feel. It is exhausting but I wouldn’t change a moment of it.

Did the subject matter make a difference to the way you approached the play?

It certainly made a difference to the rehearsal process and with the jarring undercurrent of sexual frustration in the script, we had to approach it incredibly sensitively. Tremendous credit goes to our director Amit Sharma; his intuition and versatility meant some incredibly deep and honest conversations which were then incorporated into the performance. The exchanges that I’ve had with members of the audience after the show have also been incredibly moving and informative. More valuable and precious than any research I had done beforehand.

Jack Thorne is fast becoming one of the UK’s most loved writers. What do you think it is about his work that makes him so exciting?

He has a unique way about him. There’s no way for me to describe how enthralled I am by his writing without sounding incredibly sappy, but his work has the ability to pierce you emotionally in unforeseeable ways. You’ll find yourself reading the same page again and again and it will affect you differently every time. I think that’s quite the gift.

How has your experience been of working with Graeae?

Wonderful. This is a very exciting theatre company to work with and a world-class leader when it comes to articulating and demonstrating its values to an audience. A lot of people say one thing then do something else. Graeae is nothing but unflinchingly truthful and forthright. I feel privileged to be a part of what it is trying to achieve.

The production is described as “a fully accessible production, integrating captions and audio description at all performances”. How does the staging differ from a regular audio-described or captioned performance?

I have no idea about the audio-description as unfortunately, being deaf, I can’t hear it! With regards to captions, normally they are either directly above the stage or to the left or right and one of its pitfalls is that it is very difficult to look at the captioning and the performances at the same time. With the staging of The Solid Life Of Sugar Water the surtitles are embedded onto the actual stage and the captions move according to who is speaking. The audience are usually quite transfixed by them so as actors we have to work hard to pry their eyes away!

What first sparked your interest in performing?

I think I always loved it. It was about play and exploring the paradoxes of human nature. Being deaf as well, I am more reliant on my eyes than my ears and I’d like to think that my powers of observation are exemplary as a result. I am genuinely fascinated by people’s body language and how different emotions translate on different people. I get told off regularly by friends in restaurants for being nosy; lip-reading couples on their first dates or laughing at the fussy lady complaining to the maître d’.

You played lacrosse for Scotland. Did you ever consider a career in sports?

Perhaps when I was younger yes, but I wanted to exercise my brain more than my feet in the end.

How much of an impact did BBC drama The Silence have on your career?

It was the opportunity that got me into acting professionally in the first place, and one of the most amazing jobs I’ve worked on. I will never forget it. I genuinely had no idea what doors would open for me. I had many hopes but acting’s a very difficult industry to break into, let alone for someone who is deaf. It put me in the spotlight and it convinced me that I was good enough to make a career of it.

If you could create a fantasy production to star in, who would you cast, who would direct and what would it be?

I honestly have no idea. I think what an actor wants more than anything else is to play parts at different ends of the spectrum. Parts that challenge them emotionally and intellectually. A lot of the roles I get put up for are quiet victims, for instance. Why? Are deaf people particularly suited to being quiet victims? That’s certainly not my outlook. I’d love to play someone gutsy and with a zest for living life to the full. But someone has to write it first!

Have you made any sacrifices for the sake of your career?

Acting is what I love. I chose to do what I love for a living over financial stability, a regular job and my more conservative background. I’ve ignored people I care about suggesting I should offer my resources to something different. I’ve realised over the past few years that acting has the power to decimate your confidence as an artist. You have to be resilient as an individual to cope with rejection, the lack of auditions and the brutal honesty you hear from people. So yes, there are sacrifices but we all make them to be where we are.

What would you choose as a last meal?

Probably a Chinese takeaway; I became allergic to MSG a few years ago so I figure at least I won’t get ill afterwards.

What one book, film and album would you recommend to our readers and why?

Ian McEwan’s Saturday or Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups Of Tea; as different as they come but beautiful. Philadelphia with Tom Hanks is brilliant and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon.

Where do you head after a performance?

I am quite over-analytical so it takes me a while to get out of my head space after a show. When I can, I like to join friends and family who snap me out of it.

What do you do when you’re not performing or rehearsing?

I like to work with an organisation called Common Purpose. They are a global non-for-profit that run leadership programmes taking people out into cities around the world to understand how leadership works in practice. I like to write, though I suspect I will never finish anything. I also love playing and watching rugby at Hackney Rugby Club.

What ambitions would you like to fulfil?

Finishing a novel or a script would be good! I’d love to get my hands on a meaty television role again; it’s been five years since The Silence now. I’d like to build my own house, like properly from scratch.

If you weren’t an actor, what would you be and why?

When I got my first acting job, I was teaching English in a secondary school in South East London. Life could be very different right now. But I suspect that I was always going to end up doing something like this.


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