Edinburgh Fringe 2014
Anthem for a Doomed Youth is Guy Masterson’s new work in commemoration of the Centenary of the Great War. The show is a compilation of some of the finest poetry and literature from WW1 condensed into an hour of theatre, featuring the works of well known British poets Owen, Sassoon and Brooke, but also hitherto little known French and German authors including an excerpt from Marque’s All Quiet On The Western Front.
Guy Masterson has been a Fringe regular for over twenty years. He introduces Anthem for a Doomed Youth as a tribute to those who fought in the First World War. As in most of his shows there is no elaborate set; however for this show he has also stepped back from character acting and appears as himself, simply carrying a folder containing the poems. He is at pains to point out that he has a script because he wants us to remember that these are the words of others and that he does not intend to appropriate them. Having said that he clearly knows the text he is working with very thoroughly; the show is not simply a rehearsed reading.
Although there is no set he does make good use of lighting and of sound – mostly that of the haunting thump of heavy artillery and shells falling, but also the gentle music of an andante referred to in one of the poems.
The choice of what to include must have been a challenging task with so much fine work to choose from. The result is a number of pieces from well known British poets: Owen, Sassoon and Brooke, but also hitherto little known German authors including an excerpt from Marque’s All Quiet On The Western Front and a French poet Paul Granier. Granier’s work (trans Higgins) provides a striking contrast to the lyrical expressions of many of the British poets that we are familiar with – his work comprising short, hard hitting lines and vivid images: ‘Juddering iron buckets clanging, jerking deadweight chains clanking…’ and Masterson delivers the lines with a punch that hits you in the guts. However, it isn’t all guns and gore; there are lighter moments – of the camaradie, the writing home to families, the imaginative ways of dealing with lice…
His presentation approach spans traditional reading and very expressive dramatic portrayals. His powerful delivery together with the variety in pace ensures that the mid-afternoon audience are never tempted to let their concentration slip. He is particularly skilled at addressing the audience with great warmth, almost as a group of friends with whom he is sharing both the poems and something of the background and biography of the poet (very few of whom survived the war).
He has also included one example of a letter home and an imagined scene in no man’s land on Christmas Eve 1914. Both added to the story but, as single examples of each genre, sat a little awkwardly – hopefully he will consider adding a little more of that kind of material in the future for balance.
At sixty minutes this show felt just right for a fringe event; however, I also felt there is scope to develop it and add more (or possibly reintroduce some of those pieces that I suspect were hard to leave out in the first place) to create a full length show.
Overall, it is a powerful and moving piece; an hour where you feel you have stepped out of this frantic modern world into another, completely different one. A place where everyone’s life was dominated by the war. It took me a little while to adjust to the noise and bustle of the festival and Edinburgh streets as I left; a measure of the impact it had.