Friday, 27 April 2012

A Soldier and a Maker – Guildhall School @ Barbican Pit Theatre

“He’s a very intense man”.

A quote said of this play's protagonist Ivor Gurney, that relates to the production as a whole.  Along with this intensity is a moving portrayal of the twentieth century artist.

Ivor Bertie Gurney was born in 1890 and grew up in Gloucestershire.  A composer and poet, he fought in the First World War but sadly spent his last years in an asylum.  As such, his work is often disregarded as that of a madman.  This production seeks to unveil his output and, in the process, questions the fine line between madness and genius.

‘A Soldier and a Maker’ is a new work of both fact and fiction by Iain Burnside.  The narrative traces the life of Gurney, the script taken from his poetry and his letters and includes musical interludes from his vocal works.  Although dramatic license has been used, this is a mostly accurate account.  The first half takes place largely in the war, juxtaposing Gurney the soldier with his colleagues at the Royal College of Music where he studied.  This creates counterpoint between the source and the perception of his work; the horror of war and the lives of those on the home front.  This continues in the second act.  Taking place in the asylum, Gurney’s madness is treated as shellshock but through his poetry and songs the audience can see through his psychotic episodes to the misunderstood artist beneath.  Like Beethoven, who he is so often compared with in the script, Gurney is a tragic hero.

The set design is particularly impressive.  A series of images surround the stage space which collectively represent both a war-torn environment and Gurney’s deteriorating and broken frame of mind.  Gothic and abstract, yet equally beautiful, the changes of lighting give the impression of both oppressive foreboding and celestial brightness.

Most impressive though is Richard Goulding’s outstanding performance as Gurney.  Though there is the odd weak link in the cast in terms of acting, the male ensemble are particularly strong and natural with some superb singing.  Goulding, however, holds the production together.  An acting alumnus of the Guildhall School, he is able to find lighter moments of comedy within the darkness for a believable and sympathetic depiction of the central character that could so easily have gone awry. 


Watch: 'A Solder and a Maker' runs until the 28th April.