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Low Down

Written and directed by Christopher Kent, for JST’s Footprints Festival. Designed by Louie Whitmore. Lighting by Johanna Town’s again simple. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. One day only, July 10th . Filmed and may be later available as stream.


For the whole of Saturday in this stupendous Jermyn Street Theatre Footprints Festival we’re treated to a heterogenous triptych: actor/director Christopher Kent’s and pianist Gamal Khamis’ The Love and War Trilogy.

It’s one that interrogates not only war but our travelling to and from it, our diaspora of violence and refugees, the lost and not-quite-found. Being restless as a displacement for living, mostly a male phenomenon. We should perhaps be suspicious of those labelled heroes, and each age that throws up its own versions.

If that seems daunting it’s really not, though the first item’s the most extended, multi-voiced and deserving of itemised treatment, partly because the narrative’s so personal to Kent whose authoritative delivery – now sonorous, now quick now mournful personae – lends perspective. Khamis is a pianist whose feel for the different romantic and baroque pressures of the works he plays is deft and pitch-perfect.  Kent stamps his personal take on the Odyssey too, weaving his own refugee narrative and witness – in one case literally.

The second and third parts of the trilogy are more briefly summarised. Written and directed by Kent, for JST’s Footprints Festival, it’s designed by Louie Whitmore. Lighting by Johanna Town often sways between blond sunlit radiance and midnight shadows at sea.


Never Such Innocence

The title’s Larkin’s. And we return to him. Kent narrating and Khamis on the piano trace the First War with a personal connection. So threaded through words and music, there’s the story of Kent’s relative: nineteen year-old WW1 conscript Private Percy O’Key, setting his letters and diaries alongside words by e.g. Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Vera Britain and period piano music by Elgar, Bridge, Ravel, Debussy Schoenberg and Bach.

Khamis introduces first an Elgar transcription from the opening of Chanson de Matin. Kent magisterially compares little Britishness from Brexit back to Britain’s empire.

We get Brooke’s second of five War Sonnets with its death-wish ‘like Swimmers into cleanness leaping’ leaving ‘all the little emptiness of love’ speaking more to personal neuroses and oblivion than any renewal.

It’s worth flagging that not all saw the war as Brooke did. Aged just 19 in 1914, Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895-1915) condemned Brooke for his ‘fine words’ when ‘non-compliance would have made life intolerable… he has clothed his sentiment in fine words, but has chosen the sentimental attitude.’

Isaac Rosenberg too, whom we’ll come to, wrote of War curiously: ‘Snow, a strange white word.’ He only joined to send pay to his family. He was recuperating from TB in South Africa in 1914.

After Jessie Pope’s recruiting song ‘Will you, my laddie?’ (wait for Wilfred Owen’s riposte) we get a rousing Chopin Military Polonnaise Op 40 opening, the kind of prance- horsemanship in keeping with 1914.

Rosenberg’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ is remarkable. Rosenberg (1890-1918) was apart from Sorley the greatest loss we sustained in WW1 poetry. Rosenberg could nail Donne’s exciting influence – where Brooke and Lascelles Abercrombie just tried.

David Jones (1895-1974) is odder: a wonderful artist and calligrapher, his. Poem-novel In Parenthesis, published by T. S. Eliot in 1937: his first masterpiece, still perplexes. We get a section of it here, one of those daybook entries of life slithering round the trench network.

A Debussy Prelude ‘Paysage’ suggests the terrain blown apart during the war. Kent introduces pacifist and late-flowering poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917) through two contrasting poems – ‘Two in a Wood’ contrasting lovers and losses of labourers already dead; and Thomas’s friend the American Robert Frost (1874-1963).

‘Stopping By a Wood’ his most famous work is deeply American: ‘But I chose the path less travelled by/and that has made all the difference.’ Frost convinced Thomas he was a poet. Starting aged 36 he became a major one in just three years till killed at Arras in a forward-observation post where he had no business to be.

Frank Bridge (1879-1941) was more than Britten’s great composition teacher. We now know he was one of Britain’s very greatest composers, and the most progressive, his style moving from late Romantic Edwardian towards the Second Viennese school – his Third Quartet was premiered in Vienna alongside Berg’s second, his Lyric Suite.  Though increasingly chromatic it was the war which catapulted Bridge’s genius to something astonishing.

His Lament ‘For Katherine’ commemorating a family he knew and their nine-year old-daughter all lost when the Lusitania was torpedoed in May 1915, was played as an orchestral elegy. It’s also played here by Khamis as an affecting solo.

We return to O’Key’s letters sometimes substituting other eye-witnesses when O’Key doesn’t supply one. The first day of the Somme (July 1st 1916) is one, where officer whippers-in pistolled anyone faltering. Nearly 20,000 died that day with 60,000 casualties overall. O’Key wounded 16 days later earned a ‘blighty’ but eventually returned to fight.

Sassoon, whose background as a courageous officer (‘Mad Jack’ earning a Military Cross he threw away – and later awarded another!) is first represented by ‘They’, enumerating casualties like ‘Bert’s gone syphilitic’. This iteration influenced Owen’s ‘The Chances’ and we’ll come to their collaboration.

Sassoon’s ‘Base Details’ start: ‘If I were old and bald  and short of breath I’d live with scarlet majors at the base’ and excoriates the top brass. e e cummings’ poem ‘my sweet old etcetera’ is a more modernist response. Cummings (1894-1962 with his aversion to capital letters) is better-known for post-war work, but he was a courageous American ambulance driver.

Ravel also an ambulance driver wrote his 1917 Suite Le Tombeau de Couperin in six movements – we hear the four-movement orchestral version frequently. Each is dedicated to one or two friends killed. The Rigaudon is fourth, used as the orchestral finale. It’s dedicated to two brothers Pierre and Pascal Gaudin killed by the same shell in November 1914.

Sassoon’s declaration against the war was even read out in the Commons, published in the Times. An aristocratic war-hero he couldn’t be shot unlike 306 soldiers: officers were evacuated to Craiglockhart hospital for ‘neurasthenia’. There Sassoon famously met Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) to whose development he was crucial.

‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is a fine choice, a requiem that denies itself as formal mourning and only finds release in quiet familial grieving – set memorably by Britten in his 1962 War Requiem. By contrast ‘The Sentry’ is a thrusting narrative of a man blinded by a shell. It ends: ’’I see your lights!’ But ours had long died out.’

‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is another riposte ‘to a certain poetess’ but originally to ‘Jessie Pope’ who wrote ‘Are you my laddie?’ Its target cataloguing the obscene effects of gassing ‘guttering choking drowning…. Watch the white eyes.. the froth-corrupted lungs… ending on a spitting out: ‘you would not tell with such high zest/to children ardent for some desperate glory/of the old lie:/Dulce et decorum est/pro patria mori.’

Schoenberg’s atonal Op 19 piece preludes a narration of revolutions home (Dublin) and abroad. O’Key’s letter imagines holidays as he take up sentry duty. The deaths of poets Brooke, Thomas, Rosenberg, Owen killed a week before the Armistice.

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) like Rosenberg was gifted in two arts. Whilst Rosenberg was a painter studying at the Slade, Gurney was a song composer of acknowledged genius, only now getting his full due. Orchestral and piano works to are coming to light. This is because like Owen’s ‘The Chances’ ending with ‘Jim’s rolled all the lot… Jim’s mad.’ Gurneys fragile mental health gave way and from 1922 till his death he was in an asylum, composing and writing for many more years. His earlier poems comes from his Severn and Somme (1917) and War’s Embers (1919) whereas his third volume and subsequent work was rejected for discovering modernism, through Whitman, Hopkins and far more. It’s his later poetry we celebrate now, as well as his letters.

There’s a connection with Thomas too –his widow Helen befriended and championed Gurney, alongside several others including composer and fellow-pupil Herbert Howells and poet Edmund Blunden who also fought.

O’Key’s end in the Big Push commencing August 8th 1918 is partly chronicled by him and the regiment’s war diary, including B Company’s being the one not supported by tanks. O’Key was one of 95 who died in that action. Though O’Key was initially posted ‘missing’ on 21st August, he was killed then or shortly after ‘killed I action or died shortly after of wounds’. As it happens that’s the fourth anniversary of the first British death in 1914. On that day his picture had fallen from the wall.

Deaths from 17, 20, 23 million – including Commonwealth troops mass-buried with no names – as Kent quotes the line from Larkin’s ‘MCMXIV’. Gurney’s poem ‘To His Love’: ‘cover him with flowers’ ending with the savage ‘the red wet thing I must somehow forget.’ Other poems untitled, including one ‘shall I play that prelude again?’ – Gurney composed at least nine, recorded in 1989 by Alan Greville (himself killed young driving in 1991) – ends instead with a Bach Prelude from the 48. In B minor.

Finding out the 22-year-old O’Key’s grave. Courselle-La-Compte Railway Cutting cemetery… An account of the War Graves Commission and journey coms to its poignant close. A sad and angry consolation.

The three poems that follow were read then over O’Key’s grave: Owen’s ‘Futility’, Sassoon’s ‘Everybody Sang’ with its rousing hopeful ‘the singing will never be done’. And Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ with less familiar more tender lines, as well as the more familiar read out every armistice service, here given in full.

We end with the piano transcription of Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations – not in 1899 designed as public elegy, but gradually assuming its stature.

This at 100 minutes is the most extended and – inevitably – richly various of the trilogy, more personal, less performatively focused and touched with personal witness.

With a simple backdrop pinning various posters (covered up thereafter) a chair and table with Kent’s own memorabilia box, and Khamis’ reliable sweet-toned Kawai, it compels simple attention.


Odyssey – Words and Music of Finding Home

After an intermezzo by Clara Schumann (a composer finally gaining attention, Khamis attentive to Beidermeir phrasing) Kent introduces the bare frame of the Odyssey.

This one is interwoven with specially commissioned works by six award-winning contemporary poets and composers on themes of journey, diaspora and migration. Kent narrates intercutting with his own summaries. Russian-bearded, barefoot, an open shirt and with everything swathed underneath and behind in white sheets like sailcloth, Kent looks the part.

As with the JST’s epic last year, Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey is used, and some compositions – Thomas Ades’ already-well-known O Albion and pieces by Hugh Mather, Fenella Norman, Sarah Sherborne – not easily identifiable.

Dorothy Parker’s mordant poem ‘Penelope’ takes an oblique look, and rather beautifully Schubert’s song transcribed by Liszt ‘Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel’, written at 17, is the ideal theme for Penelope doing just that. Farley Cappeldeo is the first poet whose work ‘tell em ho to simplify a song’ a fine meditation. One recalls Derek Walcott’s 1990 Omeros too. ‘I am suspicious of heroes, how do they survive?’ Cappeldeo asks. ‘How fearful patched like an archaic sail’ is wonderfully descriptive of this epic. The poet ends with themes of emigration.

There’s much music associated with the Odyssey. Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses of 1638, Luigi Dallapiccola’s opera of the same name from 1968, and Nikos Skalkottas’ orchestral tone-poem of the same name of 1944 – a late but not permanent return to tonality from this Schoenberg pupil. Debussy’s Prelude ‘The Storm in the West’ is delivered by Khamis with a rising and precise clangour at home in the concert hall.

Anthony Munday’s contribution to The Book of Sir Thomas More is striking for this lesser-known dramatist being one who recruited Shakespeare in 1604 to write tricky 147 lines More delivers in 1517 to the riotous racist London mob about mercy to immigrant Flemish weavers. Though banned, it survives in manuscript – the only extant professional lines we have in Shakespeare’s hand.

Kent here follows several treating this as a set-piece – including Simon Callow in his Shakespeare show – and rises to his occasion with affect and a moving close. After follows an early chromatic Schoenberg piece from his Op 11.

Kent’s delivery is interspersed with more Geoff Stevens piano interludes (cusping expressionism, informed by atonal flecks but more floaty), and we’re into The Lotus Eaters but not Tennyson – he comes later in his own programme. The Cyclops is another huge theme – gruesomely related culminating in an olive stick Kent has to hand; and a prophesy – Cylcops is a son of Poisedon who’s now enemy of Odysseus, prophesying the deaths of all his men and trouble on his return nine year hence. Kent’s Cyclops voice is neatly amplified. There’s a lesser-known moment when nearing Ithaca Odysseus falls asleep and his men mistake his bag for unshared gold, let out winds blowing them a year’s journey back.

Kent was on hand when literally a man falls to earth in 2012, a Mozambique migrant. A fine meditation on poverty and imperialism follow. It’s not Auden’s 1939 Icarus poem ‘Musée de Beaux Arts’ based on Breughel follows but William Carlos Williams’ brief meditation on the same painting from 1960 – one I didn’t know. There’s Calypso passed over rapidly.

Similarities are drawn between the route we can now trace of the Odyssey, with real places, and the migrant route. We’re given a brief history of the Brandt line (north, prosperity, south of it poverty, a plea for intervention still unheard.

Danie Kadane’s piano piece commemorates the October 3rd  2013 landfall of Eritrean migrants on Lampadusa. But they never quite make it and aren’t rescued. A woman drowns gives birth to a son. 368 die only 3,000 feet from safety. Kadane’s relatively modal meditation with a rising and falling octave – additive decorations used sparingly – hits the bottom slowly with a few fretted trills skirling above.

Scylla and Charybdis occasions more men-munching, and then the Oxen of the Sun episode leaving Odysseus to fall on Ithaca (we’ve swept over Odysseus’ aid by a princess). There’s the set -pieces, Telemechus’ meeting and the reckoning – Khamis’ sound-effects of strung bow and a plucked string effect are climactic. The murder of the slave-girls, hanged: ‘like doves their feet jerked, but not for long’. Like last October when the whole poem was recited, it’s still shocking and Kent pauses over it.

Cappeldeo’s meditation on this part of the poem is a fine memorial. ‘Odysseus I thought I might dislike you… I see you as the vagrant thoughtfully wishing his clothes…’ the refrain’s haunting. ‘One woman’s king is a other woman’s case, Odysseus.’

Shostakovich’s Prelude No. 24 in B minor (not the earlier Preludes but the ‘big’ 24 Preludes and Fugues Op 87) draws its own line of arrival, embryonically heroic. But there’s that photo of Alan Kurdi, three, drowned at sea.

This is our Odyssey, with our migrants. Kent’s quietly mesmerising mapping of Homer onto modern refugee routes is an act of humanitarian recognition – of colonial obscenities, carve-ups, arbitrary divisions, scrambles for Africa, Sykes-Picot, the half-million dead in Syria spurring desperation. And the absurdity of ‘illegal, legal migration’ being meaningless. Briefly meditating on two Bellini Pietas of young and dead Christ segues into the last poem.

Yusuf Kadir’s ‘it is the time of tree of the unexpected befalling them’ is a finely-wrought Eliotian work ‘a sighting without a mirror… edges of metal and time’ marks this Odyssey’s fermata.

A Bach transcription from a concerto (I think Marcello’s Oboe Concerto) marks a timely, timeless epilogue. ‘Perhaps home is a state of mind’ Kent concludes, taking us beyond homecoming. But leading the dead suitors into the underworld and a near civil-war in another hand is an uneasy conclusion, even that of reunited lovers. Dante’s Eighth Circle discovers another story. But we end on a father/son reconciliation between Laertes and Odysseus.

We end reprising those lost refugee names. Jay Elle Williams’ second poem ‘Ulysses on Islands’ is the final work, rhythmically supple, a short story. ‘This is not home. but it is a place where I can forget my troubles, for a time.’ Another Bach transcription rounds 105 epic minutes.


Enoch Arden

Given the once-in-a lifetime chance of working with great soprano Elizabeth Schwartzkopf in some Richard Strauss songs, pianist and Strauss-lover Glenn Gould elected for something weird – even for him. He asked for Schwartzkopf to take the speaking part of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1864 narrative poem Enoch Arden, which Strauss – later of Der Rosenkavalier and at the time many symphonic poems – set in 1897. That’s just after Don Quixote for Cello and Orchestra Op 35. Perhaps the speaking cello and plangent narrative excited him to Arden, and it’s in a late-romantic Germanic tradition but… it’s still weird. Curiously, Gould’s last recording from 1982 was of early Strauss piano music.

The name Enoch has been forever torpedoed by Max Beerbohm’s deadly masterpiece Enoch Soames, about an 1890s poet set with real people who fears he doesn’t exist. But with Strauss/Tennyson it’s just a little more wonderful than weird, and delivered – as is usual – by a male speaker, can be powerfully affecting; if not free from Victorian sentiment.

So here we have a complete performance of the Strauss Enoch Arden. 911 lines by the way. Enoch’s a sailor who marries his childhood sweetheart but is then lost at sea and upon his Odyssean return years later, finds things not all as he left them…

Out of blue midnight emerges an evening parlour-play of light, piano prelude and Kent. At first he’s sitting near a small Victorian table with what look like old photograph albums, two wooden sea-crates with a strip of Persian carpet. Kent narrates Tennyson’s lines with natural pauses, avoiding obvious caesura, with plenty of breathing contours.

Kent often leaps into action or sinks in contemplation. Climactic passages bring Strauss but there’s only about 5% of the text even coloured by this. Kent’s all alone on a wide, wide text.

There’s pretty Annie Lee, orphan Enoch and blue-eyed Philip, weaker than Enoch, with Annie making peace ‘I’ll be little wife to you both’. Yes. Like that. Three children and an injury between second and third (emblematically born sickly unto death) and we get Lincolnshire melancholy, so close to Tennyson, and a resolve of employment as mate. Dire prophesies.

Apart from Tennyson’s verse so naturally spoken with naturally-paced variables, Strauss’ sparing interludes are deft enough – Strauss was a supreme characteriser down to minute tics, spectral nocturnes, wedding chimes and melodic flashes of classic early Strauss.

What’s striking too are Tennyson’s ‘Miltonic inversions’, as Keats called them, purging his own verse, though it’s consciously echoing the Bible as well. There really is a touch of Paradise Lost phrasing in this, as well as King James.

There’s some striking moments of anaphora with several lines beginning ‘the blaze’ near 600 lines in, denoting unceasing sun from all quarters. Kent manages to edge and kern the language to return it living.

Paradoxically the other characteristic is Tennyson’s verbal plainness. Unlike John Masefield in his Renyard the Fox, Tennyson can’t envelop brilliant detail in a long-range narrative, but proceeds rather like a novel. He does however use dialect, something which he was adept at and Kent relishes. Kent’s characterising vivifies the tale. Just occasionally he elides a line and unwrinkles some awkward passage by rendering a more natural order. Tennyson uses archaisms like ‘bounden’; contractions to ‘bound’ make much sense.

Enoch’s fortunes, Annie’s and Philip’s very slow decision over eleven years, Enoch’s shipwreck and anonymous return – and his decision – can be imagined. Khamis is the ideal accompanist even where the score swells at the climax, thick with octaves. He suggests power without whelming Kent in deeper gulphs of sound.

Though at 67 minutes it’s the briefest of the trilogy, it’s a stupendous marathon, especially delivered by Kent this affectingly both with flexible modernity and original nobility; and no saccharine.


An enormously satisfying traversal, two parts personal each time moving farther out to the impersonality of verse.