It Is Easy To Be Dead
The Finborough Theatre has long been a place for discovering new writers and rediscovering old plays. Artistic Director Neil McPherson seems to be on a personal mission to draw attention to overlooked histories.
Last year, as part of the theatre’s GreatWar100 production series, his play I Wish to Die Singing told the story of the Armenian genocide of a century ago; now this play presents the life and poetry of Charles Hamilton Sorley, killed aged 20 at the Battle of Loos in 1915, a fine poet though less known than some of his contemporaries.
It is a fascinating picture of a young man whose attitudes and ideas are refreshingly different from what you might expect. His view of the war, from the front and within a year of it starting, is remarkable. His letters would not have been likely to survive the censorship that other ranks’ correspondence went through.
The play uses Sorley’s own words, drawn from his poems and letters, presented mainly as his parents go through them to prepare them for publication. This is much more than a framing device: McPherson presents a picture of parents whose young son goes off to war and who have to cope with losing him.
As his parents read, Alexander Knox, as Charles Sorley, speaks the text, acting out what is appropriate. His Charles, RP-voiced with just a hint of an accent picked up from his Scots parents, starts off with public-school confidence; it takes a little time to discover what he is really like and warm to him.
He is first seen on a cross-country run in a rainstorm. “Charlie’s weather” his father calls it; running and rain both giving him pleasure, in a poem that he still has the breath to deliver against the sound of the storm, musical backing and video projection.
After his schooldays at Marlborough, Sorley has what we would now call a “gap year” in Germany. He likes the Germans and is very clear on how they differ from the English. When war is declared, he is briefly imprisoned before being allowed to return to England. Once home, he volunteers for the army but he views the situation very clearly:
Germany’s only fault is a lack of insight with those who differ from her. We are not fighting a bully, but a bigot. I regard the war as one between sisters, between Martha and Mary, the efficient and intolerant against the casual and sympathetic. I hope that whatever the result, efficiency and tolerance will no longer be incompatible.
Knox delivers a sustained performance that recreates the situations he writes about, one this young actor can be proud of, ably aided by director Max Key’s production and the playing of his fellows.
Sorley’s parents, Cambridge philosopher William and his suffrage-supporting wife Janet, are there to provide structure but they are beautifully played by Jenny Lee and Tom Marshall to become fully-rounded characters. Moments of breakdown, which could become dramatic clichés, are given such sincerity that they are especially moving. They make you want to see much more of these characters.
Contemporary music, both British and German, is threaded through the performance, most of it written by composers who also died in the Great War. The songs are sung by tenor Hugh Benson with Elizabeth Rossiter at the piano and they also play Frau Beutin, the German landlady to whom he becomes very attached, and her son.
Phil Lindley’s elegant setting, combining a warm Cambridge study with other locations, Charlotte Espiner’s costumes and Rob Mills lighting and video design, all come together building atmosphere and offering information, with contemporary photographs and other images that must have required great research effort, contributing not distracting from the content.
While the songs often add valuable comment, some longer pieces are given a prominence that holds things up. For me a little less music and more of the poems would have been welcome, but that is carping.
In It Is Easy to Be Dead, McPherson provides a clear-headed, unsentimental, first-hand view of Germany and of the war—Sorley’s view in his own words and a portrait of a young man who could have achieved so much had he live. In that sense, it is a memorial to so many more.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton