Friday, September 30

‘I want to do things I’ve never done’: The History Boys’ Samuel Barnett on his new one-man show | edinburgh festival 2022

“YOt scares me,” laughs Samuel Barnett about doing the Edinburgh fringe for the first time with a one-man play called, rather aptly, Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going to Happen. But that fear is a good thing, he stresses. “I want to do things I’ve never done before.”

The play was written for Barnett by Marcelo Dos Santos, is directed by Matthew Xia and has been brought to the fringe by Fleabag producer Francesca Moody. Barnett plays a troubled comedian – at a festival not exactly short of them – and the show initially takes the form of a standup routine. It’s about “how much we lie to ourselves, how much we choose to reveal and how capable we are of being truly vulnerable,” says Barnett. Though, he adds quickly, it is “also really funny”.

Though Barnett came to prominence as part of an ensemble in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys – and still talks with great fondness of his co-stars, who included James Corden and Russell Tovey – he finds solo shows thrilling. Back in 2010, he gave a moving and tender performance as a young man grappling with his first tax return and slowly revealing the loss that shaped his life from him, in James Graham’s play The Man in the tiny Finborough theatre. The solo show is a particularly exposing form, he says. There’s nowhere to hide – particularly in Paines Plow’s Roundabout space, where his current plays from him is. But it can be incredibly intimate. “Each time I do one of these shows, I have to get over that initial fear of looking people in the eye and interacting with them.” Ultimately, he says, it’s a liberating thing to do as a performer. “My true love is new writing in small spaces.”

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‘I have to get over that fear of looking people in the eye’ … Samuel Barnett. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Born in Whitby in 1980, Barnett is part of a large family – one of four siblings. He started performing young, before moving to London to study at Lamda and spent most of his 20s playing the role of Posner in Nicholas Hytner’s production of The History Boys. (Defining line: “I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m a homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I’m fucked.”) He was involved from the first reading, did the play at the National and in the West End, toured with it to Broadway – where he was nominated for a Tony award – as well as to Australia and Hong Kong, and starred in the 2006 film, also directed by Hytner.

He’d be intrigued to see how a director would address the play today – particularly teacher Hector’s inappropriate behavior with his young male students, groping them as they ride on the back of his motorcycle. The boys in the play treat it as a rite of passage. Though the play was written in a pre-#MeToo era, “we all had issues with it back then,” says Barnett. While Bennett and Hytner said it was true to their experiences at school in the 50s and 60s, the play was set in the 1980s which made it more jarring. Not that the setting changes things, Barnett stresses. “It’s not okay. It’s never been OK – you cannot behave like this.”

Playing a teenager in that production for so long, he says, kept him “emotionally young”. That and his boyish looks mean it’s taken him some time to be taken seriously as an actor in older roles. But he’s enjoying the opportunity to play characters closer to his age, as is the case in Edinburgh. He used to find it easy to play naive but now finds it much harder, while at the same time: “I’m probably even more openly vulnerable than I used to be, because I know myself, so I can bring more to the role .”

In 2016 he played the main character – a detective who relies on coincidence to solve cases – in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, based on the books by Douglas Adams, and more recently starred in Four Lives, Neil McKay’s BBC drama about the multiple police failings in the case of Stephen Port, who killed four young gay men. Barnett played Port’s neighbour, who was dismissed when he first attempted to provide information to the police, and delivered a speech accusing them of having blood on their hands. “It was great to be in something that was going to educate and have an impact, and that was really important to the LGBTQ+ community. It really had something to say.”

Barnett, third from right, with the cast of Nicolas Hynter's film adaptation of The History Boys.
Barnett, third from right, with the cast of Nicolas Hynter’s film adaptation of The History Boys. Photograph: BBC/Allstar

Barnett’s father and grandfather both died from Covid-19 during the pandemic. It prompted him to research his family history of him, and he penned a show, Medium, about his discovery of him that he came from a line of magicians. Like so many people who lost loved ones to the disease, he was unable to be with his father in his last days. “I think it’s a privilege, a human privilege, to be able to go through a process of death with someone,” he says. Covid restrictions prevented that. “And then it turns out, all these rules were broken anyway. That’s galling.”

The lockdown did at least give him the opportunity to grind properly. “I couldn’t go anywhere so I had the time and space to face it,” he says. As for the government: “I don’t have the energy to waste on getting angry about them.” On the one hand, the feelings of rage and powerlessness would just be too much, he says, if he were to give in to them. But he’s also sensitive to the fact that humans are fallible and politicians are humans too. That doesn’t make it easier, he says. “But governments fall and this one will fall eventually.”

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