Monday, 20 June 2016

Review It Is Easy To Be Dead

It Is Easy To Be Dead
By Neil McPherson

An Unsentimental Education

Charles Hamilton Sorley was a name TLT and her motorised steed knew faintly from anthologies  and his poem Such, Such Is Death was familiar. But other than his name and that poem, he was an unknown quantity when we set off to the Finborough Theatre for a new biographical play on his life.

And it proved to be a gentle revelation in this solidly contructed piece directed by Max Key with Alexander Knox as Charlie whose life was cut short by a sniper's bullet at the age of twenty on a French battlefield in the autumn of 1915.

It Is Easy To Be Dead, the title is taken from a poem, is a clear dramatised introduction to his life and work which brings home all too keenly his enormous promise. He was a signficant posthuous influence on fellow Marlborough College pupil, Siegfried Sassoon after  Robert Graves had discovered Sorley poems and shown them to his friend.

However McPherson has chosen understandably not to define Sorley by  assocations with other First World War poets but to let him take centre stage alone as an original and intriguing voice.

Designed cleverly by Phil Lindley to accomodate the videos and war scenes, the setting is the study and parlour of his parents, William Ritchie Sorley (Tom Marshall) a professor of moral philosophy with ties to German academia, and Janet Colquhoun Sorley (Jenny Lee), a suffragette who determined that Charlie's memory should live on. 

Certainly his life is worth exploring. He comes through as a figure ready to straddle the transition between Victorian imperial philanthropism and twentieth century welfare state, curious, generous, with an unsentimental recognition of his privileged position and eager to accumulate experience across class and country divides.

Playwright McPherson makes the play's outer framework the reflections of Charlie's parents after his death interspersed with  projections (video designer Rob Mills), along with the music of  parlour female piano player (Elizabeth Rossiter) and singer (Hugh Benson), the latter almost like a Charles Sorley alter ego with a repertoire of the classical and the popular.

We follow the young man's journey from Marlborough School where he excelled in both sport and academic subjects to Oxford to the horrors of the French battlefields. In between came a lpre-war episode when he furthered his studies in Germany where he both admired the German way of life and noted the increasing militarism and anti-semitism amongst student fraternities.. 

We did recall that maybe this type of relationship with Germany and the German people was not so unusual. Even in the Second World War film Colonel Blimp, the Colonel also has a youthful trip to Germany and a life-long German friend.

While McPherson confines himself to Sorley's own words, imbuing the piece with accuracy and authenticity,  it also somewhat imprisons the playwright and prevents the wider context.

When Sorley mentions his ambition, for example, to undertake social work or become a working men's college instructor, we wondered whether he was influenced at Oxford by the work of Toynbee Hall which would brought him into contact with London's East End.

Similarly we wondered how his viewpoint as a Scotsman coloured his and his father's obvious affliation with German culture and its social insurance system, with which Britain was only just catching up.

The influence of his strong minded parents, the element of school rivalry in the promotion of the poets who emerged during the First World War, Charlie's place as a Scots poet are all loose threads which, we felt, the playwright might have taken up and woven together.

The structure seems straightforward, although we detected a possibly more complex relationship in the play with the authors Sorley encountered on the page during his all-to-short life. Nevertheless Sorley's fresh individual voice comes through loud and clear.

This is a play with all the groundwork done, so an amber light for a dramatised life which made us want to know more.. Given further development, It Is Easy To Be Dead has the potential to deepen our understanding of a turning point in European history and has already made a distinctive contribution to giving Charles Hamilton Sorley his rightful place amidst better-known contemporaries.

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