“We are heavily shelled on the march up to the line. The chalk soil is slippery. Ambulances, ammunition wagons, guns, water-carts, mules, horses and men going up, and coming back down on the other side. There’s something like fifty thousand unburied bodies scattered over a few square miles of country.”
Such is one of the many vivid and detailed descriptions of the First World War given by Charles Hamilton Sorley (Alexander Knox) in It Is Easy To Be Dead. I must admit I knew nothing of Sorley prior to seeing the show (I don’t think reading the press release really counts as prior knowledge), and having had the benefit of being exposed to his work, or at least some of it, I’m pleased to have encountered some remarkable writing, particularly for someone who died at just 20 years of age.
This is an important work as various World War One centenary milestones are reached, and the most poignant I’ve come across since the 2014 Trafalgar Studios revival of Stephen MacDonald’s Not About Heroes. The impressive set in this production, apparently partly ‘crowdfunded’, leaves little to the imagination and makes the small studio space that is the Finborough Theatre look substantially bigger than it really is.
I was looking for an answer as to why Sorley’s work isn’t as well-known as that of Rupert Brooke or Wilfred Owen, and while this play gives the odd subtle hint it’s not something explored in great detail. Looking at the poetry itself, I suspect that while Sorley’s writing was profound and deeply touching, it was not as rousing, and certainly not nearly as patriotic, as some of the other World War One poets.
The events in the play are not altogether presented in chronological order, flitting between the timeline of Sorley’s life and that of his parents, William (Tom Marshall) and Janet (Jenny Lee), dealing with the aftermath of receiving the dreaded telegram that no family wanted to receive: the one from the British War Office that begins, “Deeply regret to inform you…” There’s lots of description, with relatively little enacted – a cynical perspective may blame the limitations of the theatre space and budget, amongst other things. It came across to me, however, as a way of appreciating Sorley’s diary entries and poetry all the more.
Some helpful projections gave some perspective to the narrative, as do a variety of musical items provided by pianist Elizabeth Rossiter and singer Hugh Benson. The introduction of an interval (the play was originally going to run straight through without one) provides some much needed breathing space as the storyline inevitably gets darker, and the small tit-bits of humour in this coming-of- age story are much appreciated. The amount of time and detail given over to Sorley’s upbringing only underlines his life being cut so very short.
The depictions of his everyday life are quite homely. I suspect some may have found it unnecessarily humdrum; but I personally found the intricate details very charming – and informative. In terms of his military service, we do get a full-blown dramatization of Sorley’s final battle; Alexander Knox deftly portrays it single-handedly – aided by the use of some appropriate sound effects, which were so good at recreating a war scene that I struggled to hear Knox over the ‘shelling’ and ‘gunfire’ on occasion, just as it would have been (I imagine) on the battlefield itself.
The fusion of prose, poetry and song works well in this steadily-paced play that punches above its weight. The sheer quality of the source material combined with a talented cast make for a very absorbing and thought-provoking evening. And there’s not a single expletive to be heard – that is unusual for a new play.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Commemorating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, the world premiere of It Is Easy To Be Dead by award-winning playwright Neil McPherson opens at the Finborough Theatre for a four week limited season on Wednesday, 15 June 2016 (Press Night: Friday, 17 June 2016 and Saturday, 18 June 2016 at 7.30pm).
Born in Aberdeen, Charles Sorley was studying in Germany when the First World War broke out and was briefly imprisoned as an enemy alien. He was one of the first to join the army in 1914.
Killed in action a year later at the age of 20, his poems are among the most ambivalent, profound and moving war poetry ever written.
It Is Easy To Be Dead tells the story of Sorley’s brief life through his work, with music and songs from some of the greatest composers of the period including George Butterworth, Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna, Ivor Gurney, John Ireland, Rudi Stephan and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Sorley is unique among the poets of the First World War. His life and work fits chronologically into the patriotic idealism of the beginning of the war, exemplified by poets such as Julian Grenfell and Rupert Brooke (whom Sorley criticised for his “sentimental attitude”). Perhaps because of his time in Germany before the war, Sorley perceived the truth of war long before his fellow writers, anticipating the grim disillusionment of later poets such as Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon.
The cast includes Jenny Lee (West End, Royal Court Theatre, The Young Vic, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh), Tom Marshall (National Theatre, West End, Royal Court Theatre, Menier Chocolate Factory) and two new discoveries – actor Alexander Knox as Charles Sorley, and acclaimed young tenor Hugh Benson.
Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED
Box Office 0844 847 1652
Book tickets online at www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk
Wednesday, 15 June – Saturday, 9 July 2016