It Is Easy To Be Dead
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Engrossing drama about forgotten war poet Charles Sorley
Charles Sorley is not a First World War poet as familiar as Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke, whose works are ingrained on the national consciousness. But on the evidence of Neil McPherson’s fascinating dramatisation of his short life, he merits no less attention.
Using a mixture of Sorley’s correspondence and poems, McPherson weaves together a portrait of a young man with exceptional creative vision. Opening with his Scottish parents receiving the dreaded telegram announcing his death, aged just 20, at the Battle of Loos, it rewinds to explore his formative schooldays at Marlborough and unusual route to soldiery.
Despite its sombre beginnings the play largely avoids mawkishness and examines Sorley with a keen literary eye. He was a modernist who found Brooke overly sentimental and wrote instead of ‘millions of the mouthless dead’. He also correctly predicted a ‘holocaust’ ahead, and understood better than most the class system underpinning the conflict.
But what really stands Sorley apart, the play suggests, is his knowledge and love of Germany. During a pre-war visit he falls for the country as well as his married hostess, and in scenes reminiscent of Sebastian Faulks’s ‘Birdsong’ comes of age in a land soon to be ravaged by war.
Max Key’s unfussy production, which originated at the Finborough Theatre, ensures the language stays centre stage, and boasts an excellent central performance: Alexander Knox honours Sorley with a deeply sympathetic portrayal, finely balancing passion and poise. Tom Marshall and Jenny Lee as his grieving parents successfully conjure the dilemma of being torn between granting their son posthumous fame and keeping his words for themselves. And Elizabeth Rossiter’s deft music direction, accompanied by Hugh Benson’s singing, appropriately combines British and German songs.
A fitting and poignant tribute to another bright young thing taken too soon in that miserable war.
BY: THEO BOSANQUET