Writer: Neil McPherson
Director: Max Key
There seem to be two popular narratives of the First World War: the first, that these brave soldiers died for our freedom, and the second that war is pointless. More often than not, the two are intertwined in a bizarre reasoning that in order to understand that war is pointless, these brave soldiers had to die. It’s a well-worn combo, used in every Remembrance Day Speech, every poetry curriculum made up of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, every time someone sombrely quotes Rudyard Kipling’s ubiquitous “Never Again”.
It’s tired and nonsensical- we haven’t stopped going to war, haven’t stopped sending troops to die, and yet the narrative of having “learned a lesson” is reeled out over and over again.
It Is Easy To Be Dead, directed by Max Key, tells the story of forgotten war poet Charles Hamilton Sorley whose writing, the play wishes us to know, should be just as acclaimed as that of Owen or Sassoon, but for some unknown reason has been left out of the canon. Indeed, his works pack just as much of an anti-war, pro-soldier, anti-memorial, pro-remembrance punch as his better-known peers. And coupled with the many letters he sent home, we’re able to see a near full picture of an educated, sensitive and curious young man whose life was hijacked by the power struggles of empires who were happy to throw him away for their cause.
If this story were told in a vacuum, or if it were the first of its kind, it would be a triumph. Writer Neil McPherson artfully layers the years before the war when one couldn’t have dreamed of what was to come, along with the bloody, nightmarish years in the trenches and the consequential mourning of the home front. Sorley’s untroubled and enjoyable time spent in Germany immediately before war breaks out is particularly poignant. Where complementary cultures made for easy comrades, their leaders saw fit to make them hateful enemies.
The trouble is, this story has been told so many times, and from so many different angles, it’s very difficult not to simply tell a story of tropes. Whilst Sorley did indeed exist – these letters are truly the letters he sent to his parents, these poems the poems he wrote whilst in the trenches – there isn’t enough about his story that differs from the many stories of upper middle-class officers who might have entered the war willingly, but soon saw through the honour and patriotism to the arbitrary barbarousness, and died for their men but not for their country. And unfortunately, in a canon saturated with such stories, the audience needs something more.
The performance itself is superb: Alexander Knox, playing Sorley, embodies the naïve swagger of a boy who thinks he’s a man. He delivers levity and solemnity with equal credibility, slipping gently from optimism to despair as the war continues.
Tom Marshall and Jenny Lee, as Sorley’s parents, present an honest, muted misery, expressing the grief of losing a son through weighty silences and understated gestures.
Elizabeth Rossiter and Hugh Benson’s musical accompaniment, made up of contemporary English and German songs, is stirring, and another reminder of the cultures that existed independent of war.
Phil Lindley’s design is clean and simple: Stage left shows Sorley’s father’s comfortable study; Sorley’s own narrative takes centre stage, and Rossiter, Benson and a piano occupy stage right, a spotlight guiding our eye from one to the other. A projection on the back wall shows various dates throughout, some historical, but most anniversaries of Sorley’s contemporaries’ deaths. As an online audience, some of this is lost in the camera angles, but for the most part its effect carries: Nearly every name he mentions affectionately in his letters died in that four-year period.
It feels cynical to say that this story has been told before, but unless one can find a way of subverting the meaningless repetition of “Never Again”, it’s hard to see a place for a story like this in contemporary theatre. Beautifully written and executed, but unless you just love yourself a First World War biopic, this is not a story for our time.
Runs here until 7 July 2020