The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted
by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others
by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review
the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.
It Is Easy To Be Dead
www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk Spring-Summer 2020
The Finborough is one of
London's oldest and most productive and adventurous above-a-pub theatres.
This play by Artistic Director Neil McPherson was a success there in 2016
and went on to a further run at Trafalgar Studio 2. The video recording
made then is now offered online as the first in a series of lockdown-era
The play is a portrait of
First World War soldier-poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, drawn largely from
his letters and poems. As such it invites evaluation on three points – how
effectively it captures the man and the poet, how well it stands on its
own terms as a theatre piece, and how successfully it translates from
stage to screen. And the answer to all three is only partial success.
McPherson's script uses the
frame of Sorley's parents going through his papers after his death in
battle, and so the structure is simply chronological. The nature of the
available material and the man's life means that we see more of the
schoolboy than the adult, more of the civilian than the soldier, more of
an officer's happy life in a British posting than of the trenches.
As played by Alexander Knox,
Sorley seems an amiably callow youth who moves the not very great distance
from precociously clever Public School boy to impressionable tourist in
pre-war Germany to boy's-own-adventure soldier.
(Given little to do but look
sad by the script or Max Key's direction, Tom Marshall and Jenny Lee
generously serve the play. Pianist Elizabeth Rossiter and singer Hugh
Benson punctuate the action with evocative period music.)
The play raises one potential
opportunity for insight into the man – he fell in love with Germany and
its culture (and perhaps with his landlord's wife) before the war and thus
felt some ambivalence about fighting. But McPherson has patriotism win out
by a hair without any real soul-searching or pain for the man.
Meanwhile, the poems we hear
seem clever but more glib than deep, and so one goal of a show like this –
to convince us of Sorley's importance as a poet and inspire us to read
further – isn't really met.
Things are a little more
successful when judged simply as a play. Though there isn't much character
development or forward movement beyond chronology, the fact that we know
what's coming at the end injects some colour and depth.
Here Alexander Knox's image
of open-faced innocence works quite well, increasing the sense of
impending doom. But even here much of the tragic irony is imposed on the
material rather than drawn from it.
As Sorley enjoys his early
days in the army, projections on the back wall tell us of the horrors
going on elsewhere in the war, and every time the character mentions a
friend or fellow officer by name the projection tells us when and where
that man will die.
(Sorley himself knows none of
this, except for news of Rupert Brooke's death, which inspires a
disdainful comment on Brooke's poetry.)
Sorley doesn't reach the
trenches until the last fifteen minutes of the ninety-minute play, too
late to allow any real sense of the experience's effect on him.
The video version, made during an actual performance, moves smoothly and intelligently between two cameras. But the stage lighting is not always sufficient for the camera's eye, and what would seem to be a single microphone at one side of the stage makes some voices ten feet away inaudible and others muffled.
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