“No prayers nor bells, nor any voice of mourning save the choirs”
Poetry is one of those art-forms that has kind of passed me by in life: I never really engaged with it nor made the effort to acquaint myself post-education and I can only really quote two bits at you, one random verse of The Lady of Shalott and a large chunk of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est. For the one area of poetry that did make an impact on me when I was younger was the First World War writings of poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Alfred Noyes and Owen which appealed to the history student in me, and reinforced by school trips and family holiday excursion which took in the haunting battlefields and achingly huge fields of memorials in northern France and Belgium, they have long lingered in my mind.
So when the Donmar Warehouse announced their Poetry Week under the aegis of Josephine Hart, Lady Saatchi, a most passionate advocate of widening the audience that poetry reaches, this afternoon The Poetry is in the Pity was the one that stood out for me, especially with its exciting cast of actors who would be reading: in this case, Kenneth Cranham, Rupert Evans, Max Irons and Ruth Wilson. Hart herself has sadly been quite ill and so was unable to attend, Deborah Findlay stepping in and fulfilling the role of narrator, providing context and connections between the programme of poems she has put together, fulfilling her mission of trying to demystify, illuminate and intensify the experience of listening to poetry.
And it was a truly sensational occasion. The verse is potent enough on the page as it is, but given such sensitive readings by actors of this calibre, it brought powerful, painful life to the experiences that are now nearly 100 years ago in the past yet remain as pertinent as ever in a conflicted world. Whether it was the voice of wearied experience and pained reflection from Cranham, of youthful chirpiness not quite yet dulled from Irons, of poised upper-class self-assurance from Evans or resigned acceptance of inevitable loss from Wilson, these poems lived and breathed in front of us
Split roughly into four sections, the opening one dealt with the initial expectations of a war that was expected to just last mere months, Rupert Evans’ making spine-tingling connections in The Soldier Rupert by Rupert Brooke but Ruth Wilson’s agonising rendition of Helen MacKay’s Train, telling of the prolonged farewells of families on train platforms was an absolute treasure.
The second group of poems dealt with the realities of war as it was being experienced rather than the sanitised propaganda that was being fed back home. Cranham was most at home here but as the section ended with a double hit of Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est given extraordinary voice by an impassioned Evans leading into Irons’ simpler but equally moving Anthem for Doomed Youth, you could have heard a pin drop as they finished, the hushed reverence of all testament to the enduring power of these words.
Thirdly, the idea of love was explored, or rather its absence in the trench lines, and offered a welcome respite with a few light-hearted pieces reflecting some of the banter one can imagine taking place, Cranham adopting a dry Scottish brogue to enliven a couple of poems by Captain Cyril Morton Horne. We then moved to the more plaintive sounds of loves strained by distance, in an age when the anxious wait for a letter was the only contact available, the guilt felt by men asking their wives to wait, the anguish of women waiting for the mail and praying it was a letter rather than a notification. Kenneth Cranham’s And You, Helen by Edward Thomas and Ruth Wilson’s reading of Easter Monday by Eleanor Farjeon doing the most damage this time.
Finally, the last group of poems dealt with the aftermath of war: the shell-shocked impact it had on those who survived, the struggles of those welcoming back men who were shadows of their former selves, above all the anger felt by the remnants of an entire generation nearly decimated by bad decision after bad decision, now watching as politicians sat around a table at Versailles and sowed the seeds to ensure that “the war to end all wars” was not actually that.
Already emotionally bruised, this section was almost too much to bear. The aching futility of Margaret Postgate Cole’s The Veteran as caressed by Wilson’s voice, the martial beats overlaid with so much cold anger in Alfred Noyes’ The Victory Ball delivered chillingly by all three men, the shards of multiple lives lost, each one sharp as a knife in Rudyard Kipling’s Epitaphs of the War, spoken with finality by the entire company. What made it all the more powerful was the knowledge that each emotion expressed here is still as valid for members of the armed forces and their loved ones today, in some ways we’ve come so far only to end up exactly where we’ve always been.
This truly was a special occasion and one that I am so very glad I made the effort to attend. Not only did it reignite my interest in this particular field of poetry, it made me want to investigate a bit more. And through Josephine Hart’s canny casting, she has provided a brilliant showcase for some sterling acting talent which has made me retrospectively appreciate Kenneth Cranham’s performance in The Cherry Orchard more, anticipate Anna Christie even more in the case of Ruth Wilson, keep a lookout for Max Irons wherever he emerges next as he really held his own against more illustrious company and completely reassess Rupert Evans as an actor possessed of just the most marvellous, commanding, beautiful speaking voice that I cannot wait to hear again.
PS: if this is an area you’re interested in reading more about, then I heartily recommend Not Theirs the Shame Who Fight, a devastatingly amazing account of survival on the Western Front in World War I in the form of edited selections of diaries, poems and letters by 6080 Private R.C. (Cleve) Potter. And if you know me, you can borrow my copy.
PPS: all excerpts are taken from poems mentioned in the text, apologies if I’ve breached copyright anywhere – it was done purely out of love – let me know and I will take it down.
Final note: inbetween writing this post this afternoon and getting home to be able to post it on here, the desperately sad news of Josephine Hart’s death has been announced. Though her absence was explained away, it was implicit that it must have been something serious to keep her away from something she was so delightfully passionate about as this, her Poetry Week, but it stills come as a shock. I thought about editing the blog entry, but have left it exactly as it was originally written and the opening quote now has an extra layer of meaning which comes with my deepest sympathies. She leaves behind a husband, two sons and a legacy of beautiful writing and passion for poetry that will surely endure.