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 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 streamed productions.

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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  It Is Easy To Be Dead - Finborough Theatre online  2020