Cecil Sharp is no unsung hero. Without the energy of this driven and at times prickly musician, the traditional folksong of rural England would very possibly have faced extinction in the early decades of the twentieth century.
His collecting of thousands of songs was nothing less than a mercy mission into an aural culture made precarious by the grave new world of mechanisation, migration and war-deaths in industrial quantities. In telling of his song-hunting encounter with the Somerset singer Louisa – or Louie – Hooper, the playwright Nell Leyshon sets up a lively tension between a number of classic English opposites: town/country, sophisticated/naïf, conservatoire/folk. The result could almost be termed a sitcom, were it not for the fact that the business in hand is the life-and-death one of a culture which, though unwritten, is precious and venerable.
At times the exchanges between the hunter and the songbird have echoes of those between Shaw’s Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, the one imposing himself with good intentions, the other resisting the blandishments of fashion and improvement. When Sharp starts transcribing Louie’s singing of The Seeds of Love onto the lines of a stave, she is as flummoxed as any of her successors have been by the arrival of such alien technology.
What unfolds from here is a debate – sometimes rational, sometimes emotional – on cultural ownership and, in Louie’s vision, the preferred absence of such a formal thing. These songs, she argues, are the people’s. They are not something to be “pinned down” into notation and borne off like transports to the hostile shores of a London salon. Since liberty and its value occupy such a central place in the repertoire, it is tempting to see her distrust of the drawn stave as akin to the unwelcome fences come to enclose fields which, within close ancestral memory, were open. Indeed, when Sharp returns to Somerset some time after his initial visit and now armed with a bound copy of the songs she had sung him, complete with his arrangements of them, she stares at him, first with plain incomprehension and then with the rage of an abuse victim.
Underlying the pair’s visceral disagreements is the knowledge, these hundred years on, that even if you dislike Sharp’s sense of entitlement, you have to accept that without his intervention these songs might well have died with the last of their singers. Indeed it is he, not she, who waxes radical by condemning the Germans for branding the England das Land ohne Musik – the country without music. Here, he says – brandishing the book of scores – is the disproving of such a charge.
Who then is the flame’s true keeper? Is it Louie, who would rather see the songs gone than bowdlerised? Or Sharp, whose house-training of these outdoor creatures will at least raise their lifespan? And does any of this really matter? On the evidence of the century-and-a-bit just gone, you bet it does since Folk (the genre), for all its clinging archaisms and dogged bleaters, is as big as it has ever been, thanks to such inheritors and re-workers of its traditions as the Carthy and Waterson families, through to Ed Sheeran and Jake Bugg.
This music is not everyone’s mug of ale, but in addressing the importance of its place in England’s national culture, Leyshon knows her business, having grown up within carousing distance of the play’s location. Director Roxana Silbert keeps it plain – acoustic rather than electric, you could say – with a moving performance by Mariam Haque as Louie, and a Cecil Sharp being kept on the right side of self-parody by Simon Robson. Strong support from Sacha Frost as Louie’s sister Lucy and Ben Allen as her on-off lover John
Review by Alan Franks
1903, Somerset. Rooted in the land where she has lived her entire life, Louie Hooper’s mind overflows with its songs – more than 300 of them passed down from her mother. Cecil Sharp, a composer visiting from London, fears England’s folk songs will be lost forever and sets out on a mission to transcribe each and every one. He believes Louie’s music should speak not just for this place but for the whole of England.
Inspired by a true story, Nell Leyshon’s Folk is a beautiful new play with songs.
Hampstead’s Artistic Director Roxana Silbert directs her second Downstairs production, following Deborah Bruce’s Raya.
The cast features Ben Allen (Measure for Measure, Donmar), Sasha Frost (The Lightning Child, Shakespeare’s Globe), Mariam Haque (Behind the Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre) and Simon Robson (The Schumann Plan, Hampstead Theatre).
Folk is a T.S. Eliot Foundation commission.
BY NELL LEYSHON
DIRECTED BY ROXANA SILBERT
18 DEC 2021 – 5 FEB 2022