It Is Easy To Be Dead

Neil MacPherson, based on the poems and letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley
Bréon George Rydell in association with Amanda Castro for the Finborough Theatre
Finborough Theatre

Alexander Knox (Charlie), Jenny Lee (Janet) Credit: Scott Rylander
Hugh Benson (Singer), Elizabeth Rossiter (Pianist), Alexander Knox (Charlie), Tom Marshall (Bill), Jenny Lee (Janet) Credit: Scott Rylander
Jenny Lee (Janet) Credit: Scott Rylander
Alexander Knox (Charlie), Jenny Lee (Janet), Tom Marshall (Bill) Credit: Scott Rylander
Alexander Knox (Charlie) Credit: Scott Rylander

Charles Hamilton Sorley was considered by Robert Graves to be “one of the three poets of importance killed during the War”. Unfathomably, Sorley’s writing has been somewhat overlooked during the later analysis and study of the lives and literature of World War I, however, Neil MacPherson's play It Is Easy To Be Dead goes a long way to redressing the balance.

Performed as part of the Finborough Theatre’s GreatWar100 series to mark its centenary, MacPherson took Sorley’s letters and poetry to create a fitting tribute to this talented young writer. It Is Easy To Be Dead, a line taken from his no-holds-barred sonnet “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead”, opened at the Finborough in June 2016 to wide acclaim, was nominated for numerous awards and a tour of Scotland followed later that year.

A recording of the performance on 14 July 2016 is now being streamed on YouTube, the first Finborough production to be shown online during the lockdown.

We begin with Sorley’s death in October 1915, as his parents Bill (Tom Marshall) and Janet (Jenny Lee) receive the dreaded telegram from the Front. Originally from Aberdeenshire, the Sorleys now live in Cambridge where Bill is an academic and Janet a supporter of the suffrage movement. All they now have of Charlie are his letters and poems and these, along with music of the period by British and German composers, video projection and Sorley himself (Alexander Knox), are used as devices to provide a fascinating and poignant glimpse into Sorley’s short life.

As his parents face his death with contrasting emotions—his father stiff-upper-lipped and withdrawn, his mother coping with her grief by sharing her son’s life through his writing—we meet Sorley as a schoolboy at Marlborough in his poem "The Song of the Ungirt Runners", exalting in the exertions of a cross country run, full of energy and optimism.

Before taking up a place at Oxford, Sorley travels to Germany to spend a year enhancing his education. Not enamoured with the public school system and interested in social work, he blossoms here, his love and enjoyment of this new culture shining through in his descriptive and entertaining letters home, along with revelations of a tentative affair with his married landlady, Frau Beutin (onstage pianist and musical director Elizabeth Rossiter doubling in this unspoken role).

But this is Germany, 1914 and Sorley’s eyes are wide open, his perception and clarity of thought demonstrated by observations on the anti-Semitism and “obsessive” efficiency coursing through the country. Briefly imprisoned as war breaks out, he makes his way back to England to join up, already convinced of the war’s futility, but obliged to do his duty. He hopes for a time when the two warring nations can shake hands once again, “as pilgrims of the Earth who renounce their country”.

Movement and pace are well judged, and director Max Key makes effective use of the limited space. Phil Lindley’s inventive set design and Rob Mills’s lighting and video design combine to evoke the calm of a Cambridge study and carnage of the battlefield, and yet more reminders of the lives affected as images of Sorley’s fallen comrades remind us of the individuals behind the appalling statistics.

Nathan Hamilton’s sound design is also impressive, the final relentless machine gun bombardment does not drown out Sorley’s words as he describes the scene of what was his final battle. The use of music of the day, beautifully sung by Hugh Benson and sometimes Knox, adds additional context and reflection. The cast are superb, but Knox is outstanding as Sorley, portraying his playfulness and intellectual maturity with engaging charm.

Watching this performance on the day the country marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day adds another layer of poignancy—World War I, after all, was the war to end all wars.

It Is Easy To Be Dead is a respectful and revealing portrayal of a remarkable young man. Caught in the most tragic of times, he clearly had great empathy for his fellow humans, and we are fortunate now to meet him through his and MacPherson's writing.

Reviewer: Sally Jack