It is a tall order to find new things to say and new emotions to feel in respect of the First World War and the waste and loss evoked by its poetry. It is a measure of the achievement of this play and production that this threshold is decisively crossed both as drama and as literature. At this time of sombre Remembrance, Sorley’s world deserves our attention as much as the national commemorations a little further down Whitehall.

It Is Easy To Be Dead

When you see millions of the mouthless dead Across your dreams in pale battalions go Say not soft things as other men have said…..

Neil McPherson has led the Finborough Theatre through a most distinguished and subtly diverse season of commemoration of the First World War. At its heart is a keen appreciation for the full range of contemporary literary comment on the war, much of which is surprisingly little known, if at all. A prime example of re-deploying these materials of the era to good effect is on display in McPherson’s own new piece, which has now deservedly transferred to a somewhat larger venue at Trafalgar Studios.

It Is Easy To Be Dead takes its title and inspiration from the poetry and life of Charles Hamilton Sorley, a highly distinctive and still neglected war poet whose writings form a bridge between the naïve, even precious, Georgian poetry which greeted the coming of war and the mature, bitter evocations of the horror of the trenches with which we are familiar from the work of Owen and Sassoon.

Crucially, Sorley was in several respects an outsider, both as an Aberdonian and as someone who had spent the first half of 1914 studying and living in Germany. He questioned whether England’s war was just, and whether it was really his war to fight. He was also a down-to-earth realist and an exceptionally brave and effective officer. What is both unbearably poignant and almost incredible is that a man who had seen and recorded so much, and with such maturity of outlook, was only twenty when he died at the Battle of Loos in 1915.

It Is Easy To Be DeadThe raw materials for this play lie in Sorley’s poems and letters, which were lovingly preserved and published by the his parents, after some delay and much agonising over the morality and merits of so-doing.

The play presents the story of his life partly through direct enactment but mainly through the act of recovering those letters, which leap off the page in their vivacity and charm, whether read by the parents or spoken by Charles himself. We see him move from school at Marlborough, through to wider experience and first love in Germany, and finally onto the sharp curve of wartime experience on the Western front.

We also see the conflicting emotions and conflict between his Scottish parents, William and Janetta, played out in a domestic setting in Cambridge, where Sorley’s father was professor of moral philosophy. The action is punctuated by powerful performances of the art songs and popular music of the day performed by a tenor and a pianist (who also portrays Sorley’s German love interest).

In literary terms Sorley’s poems act as a bridge between the worlds of Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen. Sorley was rightly critical of what he took to be the sentimentality behind Brooke’s high-flown rhetoric: his own verse is stark and stripped down and angry. But it is still embedded in the pre-war diction and polite, rarified abstractions that Owen sweeps aside with his focus on shocking, graphic particularity. It is easy to see, therefore, how Sorley’s verse was eclipsed by the grandiloquent memory of the figures to both sides of him.

it Is Easy To Be DeadWhat works particularly well here is the way in which the youthful high spirits of his school years mutate into a distinctive sceptical outlook on the war and a precise descriptive eye for detail, touched with both righteous (but never self-righteous) anger, a warm camaraderie and a gentle humour.

The music plunges us into a sense of period that complements this perspective, especially in the unbearably wistful songs by Butterworth and Gurney that act as ‘anthems for doomed youth’, accompanied as they are by sepia-tinted projections of Sorley’s school fellows, almost all of whom are killed in the war.

At the plangent heart of this play is a stand-out performance by Alexander Knox, as Charles Sorley, who is equally adept as a singer and as an actor. We should expect to see more of him. There is an urgent physical and idealistic embrace of life about his performance in the first half that makes the inevitable darkness of the second ever more painful to watch, even though you know how things will end.

There is a playfulness too alongside the anger and energy that keeps the tone varied and fresh. It was a nice touch to accentuate his native Scotch accent at times of emotional strain. The multiple talents of the actor ensure the quicksilver quality of the poet and soldier comes across to us so vividly.

it Is Easy To Be DeadThere is very solid support from Tom Marshall and Jenny Lee as his parents. These are difficult roles to bring off as they have to act themselves while also presenting the narrative carefully to the audience in terms that we can follow. Marshall is all buttoned-up professorial reserve, and Lee depicts his wife as a gentler more grounded study in maternal devotion and insight into the legacy her son’s work can still leave. This is a very credible representation of an Edwardian marriage on the cusp of modernity, and there are some very affecting moments in their journey – Janetta’s embrace of her son’s belongings salvaged from the front, and William’s final emotional crack-up as he spills a coffee cup over one of his son’s letters, thus losing part of the text, and part of all that he retains of his beloved son. As so often less is more in the end.

Elizabeth Rossiter plays the piano with a delectable sense of touch not just in the songs but in also in underscoring and interludes tastefully arranged from other songs and materials of the period. How she does so in such gloomy lighting is something of a miracle in itself. We could have seen and heard more from her as an actor in the scenes set in Germany. Tenor Hugh Benson projects a very pleasant lyrical line, though with some strain in the top register; but what counts most here is his projection and pointing of the texts, and this is done admirably.

While the claustrophobic intimacy of the Finborough gave a particular intensity to this piece, it helps that the current venue gives director Max Key and designer Phil Lindley a bit more room to breathe. There are essentially three zones of action, a fussy period interior focused on the piano, a central open space where Knox plays out Sorley’s life, and a professorial study colonised by the parents. 

There is an easy sense of movement and motion between these spaces and Knox in particular creates a sense of change of locale and period with very few props, all just at the feet of the front row of the audience. Costumes are very correct in period detail, and the subdued lighting and frequent video projections, the work of Rob Mills, are apt and never obtrusive.

it Is Easy To Be DeadThe play would be all the more punchy and memorable if it were a little shorter and performed without an interval. Lovely as all the music is, dramatically some of the points are made over-lovingly, and we could lose a couple of the songs without any parallel loss of impact. Likewise some of the material from the letters could be shortened and replaced with more extracts from the poetry which seemed under-represented by comparison. But these are minor reservations merely that do not significantly detract from the success of the whole.

It is a tall order to find new things to say and new emotions to feel in respect of the First World War and the waste and loss evoked by its poetry. It is a measure of the achievement of this play and production that this threshold is decisively crossed both as drama and as literature. At this time of sombre Remembrance, Sorley’s world deserves our attention as much as the national commemorations a little further down Whitehall.

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It Is Easy To Be Dead
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…