With live performances cancelled during the pandemic, poet Luke Wright has turned to nightly Twitter performances to keep his creative juices flowing. As he performs his 100th online gig tonight, he tells Fergus Morgan how his first-person plays ideally suit the format
Every evening since March 19, around 8pm, Luke Wright has performed poetry on Twitter. He has performed short poems, long poems, and hour-long epic poems. He’s performed angry, he’s performed sad, he’s performed tipsy and he’s performed tired. The night before we speak, he did gig number 68.
“It all started because I just didn’t like the idea of crossing things out of my diary,” he says. “I had to cancel about six gigs at the end of March, and then we – me, my kids, my mum and my dad – were going on a family holiday to Australia in April, which we had to cancel as well. So I wanted something to do. I wanted to keep performing, badly. Performance is a joy, and I get that from this. Plus, it satisfies that part of me that likes to show off.”
Each gig follows a fairly similar pattern. At 7.55pm, Wright starts the live-stream from his home in rural Suffolk and gives his online audience a five-minute warning. Then, he puts on some music and potters around his living room for a bit. At 8pm, he settles down in front of his desk and begins. Some nights he takes requests, but most nights he performs a few poems of his own choice, interspersing them with a sniff of snuff and some random chatter.
“I don’t really think about them until about an hour beforehand,” he says. “If I’ve got the kids, I put them to bed at 7pm – poor little guys because they really are too old to go to bed at 7pm – then I put on some different clothes, get myself a drink, and put together a set list for the evening. I think about what would make a good set, but I also think about what I feel like reading myself.”
‘My mate is a thatcher, so if the worst comes to the worst I will go and haul straw for him’
He continues: “I spent ages thinking about the background. At first, I set my chair up in front of my fireplace, but that didn’t look good at all. In the end I settled on doing them at my desk, because there’s depth behind me, and because I’ve got my record player next to me, I’ve got a spot for my drink, and I’ve got a spot for an ashtray. I’m like a pilot of a plane with everything at my fingertips.”
At the end of each gig – they usually last about 20 minutes – Wright proffers his online audience a virtual cap, into which they can donate money. People have donated, he says, and he is very grateful for their generosity, but the amount donated is steadily declining and it can’t come close to matching the income he would have got from regularly gigging throughout the summer.
“I got some money from the government’s self-employed support scheme,” he says. “And I got a grant from the Arts Council as well so I’m okay for now. I was going to go on tour in September and if that gets cancelled then I will be in real trouble. My mate is a thatcher, so if the worst comes to the worst I will go and haul straw for him. That would be pretty good for my physique, actually.”
When it comes to which poems he recites, Wright has a lot to choose from. Born in London and raised in Essex, he was inspired to start writing poetry aged 17 after seeing John Cooper Clarke, Martin Newell and Ross Sutherland perform in Colchester. He went on to study English at the University of East Anglia, where he co-founded the influential collective Aisle16.
Since 2006, he has mostly performed solo. He curated the Poetry Arena at Latitude Festival for 11 years. He is a regular on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live and has supported both Cooper Clarke and the Libertines live. He has published several poetry books, with another on the way in March.
‘I’m a very nostalgic person – I want to write about what has already happened’
Theatre fans, though, will know him best for his hour-long poem-plays: 2015’s What I Learned from Johnny Bevan and 2017’s Frankie Vah, both of which have enjoyed acclaimed runs at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where Wright, tall and flamboyantly dressed, cuts a recognisable figure most years.
The two shows have a lot in common. They both centre on a charismatic, young, male protagonist and his relationship with politics. They are both told entirely in Wright’s effervescent verse. And they both look back in time – to the 1990s in Johnny Bevan, and the 1980s in Frankie Vah – to explore contemporary issues.
“I’m a very nostalgic person,” Wright says. “I don’t want to write about what is happening now. I want to write about what has already happened. History hasn’t decided what it thinks of what is happening now, but it has formed a common story around events that have happened in the past. The sides have been delineated, and that gives characters more solid ground to play around on.”
The shows’ unique format – an hour-long political poem, told in the first-person – came about almost by accident. Wright wanted to create an hour-long show that consisted of just one poem, and he wanted to write an inverse version of Brideshead Revisited set in the 1990s, in which the central character becomes enamoured of working-class, rather than upper-class culture. He put the two ideas together, using the third-person, but something didn’t quite click.
“The producer Paul Jellis persuaded me to get a director,” Wright remembers. “He rang up Joe Murphy, who read the script and agreed to direct it, but only if I turned it into the first-person. At first, I thought that was an enormous task, but it actually only involved changing one rhyme and changing ‘he’ to ‘I’. Suddenly, it became a monologue. Suddenly, it became a play.”
That show was What I Learned from Johnny Bevan, which earned Wright one of The Stage’s Edinburgh Awards for Acting Excellence. It transferred from Summerhall to the Soho Theatre, and a second show – Frankie Vah – followed. The Remains of Logan Dankworth, the third show in what has unintentionally become a trilogy, was meant to do the same this summer. It is more contemporary than its predecessors, following a journalist through the build-up and aftermath of the EU referendum, but still a period piece, according to Wright.
“It is an attempt to talk about Brexit, but not in its contemporary state,” he explains. “It starts in November 2015 and ends in November 2016, and with each passing year it feels more and more like a period piece. Maybe, in a couple of years, because we’re going to be talking about coronavirus for such a long time, it will feel even more like that.”
Instead of taking The Remains of Logan Dankworth to Edinburgh, Wright has performed the show twice from his own living room. Along with What I Learned from Johnny Bevan and Frankie Vah, it has been used as a special, extended edition of Wright’s nightly Twitter gigs. At some point, he promises, he will perform them all together, back to back, live. He has an idea for another one, too, he says, a fourth.
Now, though, he has to prepare for his next online show: number 69. The century – the number at which he is considering stopping – is within his sights.
Born: London, 1982
Training: BA English, University of East Anglia
• Luke Wright’s Cynical Ballads (2011)
• What I Learned from Johnny Bevan (2015)
• Luke Wright, Poet Laureate (2018)
Awards: Fringe First and The Stage Edinburgh awards for What I Learned from Johnny Bevan