A Soldier and a Maker [Iain Burnside’s play with music about Ivor Gurney]

A Soldier and a Maker – A play by Iain Burnside about the life of Ivor Gurney

Ivor Gurney – Richard Goulding
Winifred Gurney, his sister – Bethan Langford
Marion Scott – Jennie Witton
Herbert Howells – Nicholas Allen

Other roles played by students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Iain Burnside – Director
Giuseppe & Emma Belli – Designers
Movement – Victoria Newlyn
James Southby – Lighting designer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 20 April, 2012
Venue: The Pit, Barbican Centre, London

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), as significant a poet as he was composer, has suffered the unenviable fate of a legacy based as much on his insanity as on his considerable body of work. He went from the Royal College of Music to fight in the First World War, during which time he was shot and gassed, then returned to his studies for a three-year period of intense creativity. In 1922 he was certified insane and spent his last fifteen years in an asylum in Kent.

Iain Burnside’s A Soldier and a Maker (the ‘Maker‘ was Gurney‘s choice of word for his role as a poet and composer) – an ingenious combination of play, music-theatre and staged drama-documentary – deals fully with the tragedy of Gurney’s life – is very much in the romantic area of “those whom the gods love, they first make mad” – but sets it in the context of his life as a RCM student in the thick of English music at the start of the twentieth-century, his emotionally constipated family and his wretched wartime experiences. If anything, the skill with which Burnside has introduced this levelling reality makes Gurney’s story even more moving, and parallel to the sequence of his life’s events is the process by which Gurney’s art has survived him, narrated with extraordinary effectiveness by his sister Winifred.

In the printed programme there is a poignant photograph of the young Gurney and his friend Herbert Howells, the former brooding, slightly odd-looking and intense; the latter infinitely more dapper and civilised, and the actor Richard Goulding has taken these aspects of Gurney’s personality to heart in his compelling central performance. His West Country accent is consistent. He suggests a looming, potentially uncontrollable physical presence, presenting Gurney as a man completely possessed by his art, an obsessive who neglected himself (he suffered from appalling digestion problems), who madly walked huge distances though his beloved Gloucestershire, and who had the potential for mania from quite early on. Gurney, the ecstatic, visionary, innocent, holy fool must have been quite a handful, and Goulding’s luminous, passionate performance is an enthrallingly direct realisation of someone just too large and unprepared for life.

The other main players in Burnside’s play – his sister Winifred (who lived in a “second-hand luxury caravan” – her words), fellow-student Herbert Howells and his friend Marion Scott – are brought to vivid life by Bethan Langford, Nicholas Allen and Jennie Wilton. A cavalcade of about twenty-five smaller roles – family members, students, soldiers and medical staff – were played effortlessly and naturally by sixteen singers and actors at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where Burnside is on the music staff. There was an unaccredited but impressive pianist.

Possibly the role of Marion Scott could have been fleshed out more, and it would have been handy to have had a list of the music used, but the way in which Burnside lightly evoked any number of elements in Gurney’s life – the type of artist he was, his peers, the uneasy, post-Victorian straining at the emotional seams – is powerfully effective. And, in a very English, ‘blue-remembered’ context of lost this and that, you had a permanent lump in the throat that teetered on the brink of full-scale emotional incontinence. The way the text and Gurney’s songs flowed unselfconsciously in and out of each other was bad enough, the folding in of the songs ‘I’m homesick for my hills’ and ‘This is a sacred city’ loosened the floodgates even more, but there is one specific event, near the end, that was quietly tender and seriously tear-jerking. Judge for yourself.

The simple, haunting designs and seamless direction of a large, multi-tasking cast set the seal on this moving portrait of a very English artist. If you love life, you’ll love this. Highly recommended.

  • Further performances on April 21, 22, 26, 27 & 28 and on July 13 &14 at the Cheltenham Music Festival
  • Guildhall School
  • Barbican

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