It Is Easy To Be Dead is a new work by Neil McPherson focusing on the life and death of Charles Hamilton Sorley, Scotland’s foremost poet of the First World War. Sorley was born in Aberdeen – making the location of its Scottish premiere fitting – and was educated in Cambridge, Oxford and Germany before war broke out in 1914. Having risen to the rank of captain in the Suffolk Regiment, he was killed in action in October 1915 aged just 20, and he has been described by Robert Graves as ‘one of the three poets of importance killed in the war’ alongside Wilfrid Owen and Isaac Rosenberg. His style has also been contrasted to that of the more patriotic Rupert Brooke, and the timing of the play’s run is appropriate given that this year marks the centenary of the war’s end.
The play – produced by Bréon Rydell with Neu Reekie’s Michael Pedersen as associate producer – details Sorley’s early life and education, his time in the trenches, and the posthumous publication of his poems. The letters he writes to his parents at various points provide much of the narration as they read through them following his death, ultimately deciding to publish them when the war ended.
The set consists mainly of the front room of Sorley’s parental home, although lighting is utilised to portray such areas as the trenches. Additionally live piano and singing are provided onstage by Elizabeth Rossiter and Hugh Benson, who also play the silent roles of the German couple Sorley briefly lodged with before enrolling at the University of Jena. A projector at the back of the stage is utilised in the second half, giving names of friends and acquaintances of Sorley’s who were also killed in the conflict – the youngest of whom was just sixteen.
Sorley himself is played by Alexander Knox, who provides a winning combination of humour, poignancy and exuberance in the role to create a memorable performance. Jenny Lee and Tom Marshall play his grieving parents, and Marshall in particular provides emotional moments as William Sorley struggles with his grief while also trying to remain stoic and brave in the face of every parent’s worst nightmare.
A touching, thought provoking and emotional piece, It Is Easy To Be Dead deserves to be a roaring success.
Photos courtesy of Kat Gollock.
It Is Easy To Be Dead is at the Òran Mór in Glasgow from the 11th to the 14th of November.