BWW Interview: TOM BARNES 2 Magpies Theatre
2 Magpies Theatre's Ventoux tells the story of the ascent of the Tour de France's most feared mountain by Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani, two very different men whose lives were briefly intertwined in contrasting tragedies. Gary Naylor, who reviewed the show here, caught up with Tom Barnes (right in photo) as the show hit the road for a three month tour of the UK.
"Matt Wilks and I were doing degrees in International Security and Terrorism at University of Nottingham where we got involved in student theatre and visited Edinburgh. We thought it would be nice to give this theatre stuff a go as a thing to do! We never thought that four years later we'd be touring shows.
We started from scratch. For the first show we did - The Litvinenko Project in 2013 - we had time, but no money and no space, so we made a show that we could perform together by just talking. We started in Nottingham, then went to Leicester and Oxford and things got moving. When we worked on Ventoux, we got bigger theatres on board - The Curve in Leicester were particularly supportive.
The Litvinenko Project was made to mark the seventh anniversary of Alexander Litvinenko's death (by poisoning in 2006). We've been touring it on and off and the case has recently been back in the news, so the show has changed in response to that. We're yet to hear if venues in Moscow are interested...
The other show we have is Last Resort, a multi-sensory show about the detention of terror suspects in a future Guantanemo Bay, which has become a holiday resort where the audience sit in deck chairs with a cocktail served on arrival. It was commissioned by The Lowry and we expect it to tour in late 2017 / early 2018 - and possibly at Edinburgh in August.
I got interested in cycling in 2012 with The Olympics and Bradley Wiggins' Yellow Jersey. Reading about racing made me aware of aspects of the history of the sport, and the story of Stage 12 in the 2000 edition stayed with me. I knew about Lance Armstrong because he was in the news for his doping, but I didn't know much about Marco Pantani. The way the perception of the race and of the riders has changed over time is interesting, particularly with the fact that their showdown came on this mountain. There's something unique about Mont Ventoux.
I didn't think anyone would be interested in seeing the show! But we started watching various films and what interested us were the rivals' own words and what that told us about their characters. They are polar opposites, even if they have both overcome huge problems - Armstrong had cancer and Pantani a massive head-on collision with a car. They both thought their careers were over (at the very least).
We had to make some difficult decisions about the material we had - we couldn't make the show about facts. We had to pick what we wanted, make sure everything we included mattered and leave some of the work to an empowered (but not bored) audience - which is more interesting for them too. We focused on the riders' relationship and the mountain, flashing backwards and forwards only when we had to. The audience can find out more about Pantani by watching the movie about his life, which is really good.
The men are archetypal tragic heroes, the best at what they do, but also fundamentally flawed, so similar, yet so different as well. We wanted to explore why Pantani is revered (for all his misdeeds), yet Armstrong vilified, though the bullying, the law suits and the lying do make him a bad human being. The audience know most of that about Armstrong, so we needed to give them an alternative perspective - we show how he did amazing things to support people with cancer. The challenge became one of softening Armstrong a little and also showing that Pantani had a dark side, despite the love he inspires, for all the faults (say, like Diego Maradona or Paul Gascoigne). By the end of the show, the two of us are wearing the same clothes, alike, two men indistinguishable.
Many audience members tell us that they were massive fans of Armstrong - and some say they kind of still are, especially those who have been inspired by his cancer work and courageous example. Others say that they hated him then and now hate him even more. Pantani does not provoke as much reaction, probably as a result of Armstrong being so well known.
Because the show is well researched, it has struck a chord with journalists like Richard Moore, encouraging them to see things differently too. There was a point when we had (journalists) David Walsh and Paul Kimmage in the show, but as we focused the narrative, we lost them even though they were critical in uncovering the story.
There's still a fragility in cycling about doping - we're getting it a lot at the moment about the Team Sky revelations - so people don't really want to get involved wit hthe production as sponsors etc as it's a throwback to some of the sport's worst days. We understand that and we don't want to bring the sport into disrepute at all!
In selling the show, our job is to convince cycling fans who have no interest in theatre to come along - on our last tour, 45% of our audiences were visiting a theatre for the first time! But for regular theatregoers, they will see a story in which there is something really human about wanting to succeed at something, being in love with something and then falling out of love. Pantani loved cycling, but the success brought intolerable pressure - the fame and fortune proved too much. Armstrong didn't love cycling, he loved winning and that's what brought him down. The universal story is about dealing with ambition and the short cut offered by cheating - a human dilemma - and the subsequent price to be paid."