Charles Hamilton Sorley died in the Battle of Loos in 1915 during the First World War. He was just 20 years old. Now, over a hundred years after his death, Neil McPherson has written It Is Easy To Be Dead, based on the life and work of the Scottish poet. Rather than imagining the horror and reality of war, we relive it through Sorley’s poems and letters, as his parents William (Tom Marshall) and Janet (Jenny Lee) read and prepare them to be published posthumously. Compiled using Sorley’s own words of candour and openness, It Is Easy To Be Dead provides a touching insight into Sorley’s short life, both before and during the war, and the affect he had on those he left behind.
Sorley, played by Alexander Knox, was not a sentimentalist, and wrote of the war with nothing but frank disfavour. Knox brings this to life with the playful and boyish demeanour in which he recites Sorley’s letters, and captures Sorley’s brightness brilliantly. His anti-war stance is made clear, as he suggests poet Rupert Brookes is “too obsessed with his own sacrifice” and says “I do wish that all journalists who say that war is an ennobling purge could be muzzled.” This, juxtaposed with wartime relics from the era including recruitment song ‘The Army Of To-Day’s Alright’, highlight Sorley’s awareness of the futility of war, making it even more painful to lose him. Marshall is stern and understandably solemn as Charles’ father, sharing the same no-nonsense attitude as his son but with less charm, while Lee is warm and dignified as his mother. Elizabeth Rossiter accompanies the production on the piano, while Hugh Benson sings beautifully beside her. Images that appear projected on the wall behind the stage of fallen soldiers, as Sorley discusses them, help to illustrate that Sorley was just one of millions who lost their lives.
Max Key’s production is bittersweet. During the hour and forty five minutes we spend with Charlie in the small Trafalgar Studios 2 we experience his clear intelligence, perceptiveness and zeal at such a young age. We get to know him, his humour and his magnetic personality. We watch him discover new places and fall in love, and then he is taken from us. What could be a more striking reminder of the colossal tragedy of war? One is left wondering what he could have achieved, perhaps what he could have written, if he had survived the war. The dreadful feeling that so much life was wasted is inescapable. It Is Easy To Be Dead is a sobering, moving, magnificent portrait of a life unfinished.
It Is Easy To Be Dead is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 3 December. For more information and tickets, see AGT tickets website.
Photo: Scott Rylander