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Neil McPherson – It Is Easy To Be Dead

It took twenty-eight years for Neil McPherson to write It Is Easy To Be Dead, the writer and artistic director of London’s Finborough Theatre’s homage to First World War poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, which arrives in Scotland this week for a short run in Aberdeen and Glasgow following the play’s West End success. McPherson’s original idea as a young actor in 1988 was to write and perform a one-man show about Sorley’s better known contemporary, Wilfred Owen. A director told McPherson that there were lots of plays about Owen already, and that he should do one about Sorley instead.

McPherson had been running the Finborough Theatre for seventeen years by the time he began what would become It Is Easy To Be Dead, and programmed it as part of a season to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war. Keen to come at things from a different angle, McPherson’s 2014 season included the English-language premiere of German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s Summer 14 – A Dance of Death, which looked at the war from a German and European perspective. The following year, McPherson wrote I Wish to Die Singing, a documentary drama written in response to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, when a million and a half people were killed in what was then the Turkish city of Constantinople, now Istanbul.

The real labour of love, however, came in 2016 when McPherson premiered It Is Easy To Be Dead. The production was greeted with universal acclaim, was nominated for an Olivier Award and transferred to the West End. When the play is revived this week for dates in Aberdeen and Glasgow enabled by the show’s original producer Breon Rydell in association with Edinburgh-based spoken-word night Neu! Reekie!, it will be a homecoming of sorts for Sorley’s legacy.

“Sorley is really important, I think, in terms of the First World War poets,” says McPherson of the Aberdeen-born poet who was shot by a sniper during the Battle of Loos in 1915. “He was writing the same time as Rupert Brooke, who is much better known, but Sorley got the war before anyone else, and that’s probably got something to do with why his work isn’t as well-known as some of the other war poets.

“People in 1916 probably didn’t want to hear how war is terrible. They weren’t ready for it. Also, Sorley was something of an outsider in many ways. He was Scottish, and went through the English public school system, and he spent what we’d now call his gap year in Germany, and when war broke out he nearly got arrested.”

McPherson is referring to the incident in Trier after Germany declared war on Russia when Sorley was detained for an afternoon before being advised to leave the country. On his return to the UK he immediately volunteered for the British Army, but his six months in Germany had left their mark.

“He was able to see the war from both sides,” says McPherson, “and unlike Siegfried Sassoon and people like that, he wanted to be a social worker. “As a poet, Sorley was setting things up for Sassoon and Owen, but he was also someone who was vibrantly alive. He came out of the English public school system, but wasn’t in any way old-fashioned. He went to Marlborough College, and a lot of other students there did. In this one figure of Sorley, you’re kind of seeing all of them. So Sorley is quite this modern figure. He’s just a 19-year-old kid on his gap year.”

McPherson’s play focuses in part on Sorley’s relationship with his parents, without whom the wider world might not know his poetry at all.

“They had the money to get their son’s work published,” says McPherson, “and in a way the play is as much their story as Sorley’s.”

It Is Easy To Be Dead is told in the main through Sorley’s letters by the show’s original cast. Re-directed for its dates in Scotland by Liz Carruthers, McPherson’s play will open in Glasgow on Armistice Day. This will see the culmination of a welter of First World War-based material produced on stage over the last five years or so.

As well as It Is Easy To Be Dead, Armistice Day will mark the opening of a new production of Austrian writer Karl Kraus’s unwieldy epic, The Last Days of Mankind, written in 1918 in response to the First World war, in 1918. The National Theatre of Scotland, meanwhile, will mark Armistice Day with their contribution to Pages of the Sea, a new commission from 14-18 Now, the agency set up to commission new artworks to mark the anniversary. Overseen by film and theatre director Danny Boyle, Pages of the Sea will see portraits of fallen heroes created in sand across 32 beaches in the UK, including six in Scotland. A new poem by Carol Ann Duffy will also be read.

Such a level of activity demonstrates both the lingering power of the war and the level of respect it is given.

“There’s a sense in Britain that everything stems from the First World War,” says McPherson, “and I don’t think that’s quite the case in other countries, even though they had more casualties. I suppose there was a kind of innocence about what happened, and an innocence lost. If it hadn’t been for the First World War there wouldn’t have been a second, and without the Second World War there might not have been a Cold War.”

In terms of It Is Easy To Be Dead, it is also about paying homage to a neglected but crucial figure.

“Robert Graves said we lost three poets of importance in the First World War. There was Isaac Rosenberg, there was Wilfred Owen, and there was Sorley. To think what he already achieved in his writing and what he could have gone on and done, you realise what a major loss that was.”

It Is Easy To Be Dead, The Tivoli Theatre, Aberdeen, November 6-7; Oran Mor, Glasgow, November 11-14.

The Herald, November 6th 2018

ends

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