Saturday 21 April 2012

A Soldier and a Maker

Iain Burnside's play, A Soldier and a Maker, arose out of the idea of interleaving Ivor Gurney's songs with texts from his poems and letters. This developed into a full length play which combines Gurney's words and songs along with other material from family and friends, plus his medical records, all woven together into a dramatic structure by Burnside. Burnside has worked on the song repertoire at the Guildhall School of Music over the years. A Soldier and a Maker is in some ways a development of Lads in their Hundreds, Burnside's fully-staged anthology of songs about war and warfare which developed with singers at the the Guildhall School.

GSMD presented A Soldier and a Maker at the Pit, in the Barbican, rather than in the school itself. We saw the premiere on Friday 20th April. Richard Goulding, a former student at GSMD, played Ivor Gurney with students from GSMD playing all other roles and playing the piano; two students played roles in the play, sang and accompanied the songs.

The play, in 2 acts lasting around 1 hour each, was essentially a direct narrative taking Gurney from his native Gloucestershire, to the RCM, to the Western Front, back to the RCM and finally into a mental institution. But the structure was flexible, so that the piece opened with Gurney in the Dartford mental institution and events overlapped. Quite often there were soldiers present, as images from Gurney's mind.

Burnside directed with designs by Guiseppe and Emma Belli. The set was a simple and flexible structure using half a dozen panels each of which bore part of a stunning image in which the designers had interleaved the trees of Gurney's native Gloucestershire with the blasted heath of the Western Front; the complete image was repeated in the floor.

Songs were split between singers and sometimes sung by a group, according to the dramatic context. The songs were part of the narrative flow, sometimes being sung by characters in the drama, sometimes used to accompany the drama and sometimes an indication of what is going on in Gurney's head. It is always difficult to treat mental illness and the complexities of what happens in an artists head, but by interleaving text and songs, Burnside helped us to glimpse the problems and troubles of the Gloucestershire genius.

The action moved between Gloucester, the Royal College of Music, the Army and the hospitals. In Gloucester, Ciaran O'Leary and Holly Marie Bingham were profoundly unsympathetic as Gurney's brother and sister-in-law, giving a troubling counterpoint to Gurney's illness. Gurney's sister Winifred (Bethan Langford) cropped up periodically, out of time, with the text taken from Winifred's candid letters to one of Gurney's early biographers.

At the RCM the students were portrayed as being rather patronising to Gurney, with Herbert Howells (Nicholas Allen) forming something of an almost comic but unsympathetic figure. Jennie Witton was outstanding as Marion Scott, Gurney's long-time friend and supporter; one of the few people to continue visit Gurney when he was in the Dartford mental institution.

The soldiers in Gurney's troop were described to us via his letters, and the war scenes used Gurney's poetry, sometimes recited by the men as a group, a device which I did not feel quite worked; but these scenes brought out the way the war combined horror and humour and the unlikeliness of Gurney writing poetry and songs in the trenches.

Gurney's mental instability was portrayed as almost an extension of the way he felt the need to be connected to the Gloucester countryside. His suicide attempts and descent into some sort of madness, were portrayed in scenes that were profoundly moving and immensely troubling. Using the songs helped us get to know more of Gurney, whereas a simply spoken play would have been able to go less deeply.

The performances were all uniformly strong; perhaps not all the singers were quite up to top lieder standard, but in terms of dramatic delivery and commitment to the words, they could not be faulted. Diction was uniformly excellent and you never felt the need for any crib.

Richard Goulding gave a towering performance as Gurney, complete with Gloucestershire accent, a visceral physical presence who was on stage virtually all the time. A tremendous achievement.

The end, where Gurney alone in his room in the mental institution, is gradually surrounded by the rest of the cast, characters from his past, all singing his song 'By a Bierside', was profoundly moving. The piece will be performed at the Cheltenham Festival in July, but both the piece and these performances deserve a far wider audience.

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