An Unsettling, Thought-Provoking Reflection on War and Conflict

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Drums and Guns: Cast from Royal Irish Academy of Music, Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Juillard School, Iain Burnside and Conor Hanratty (directors), Milton Court Theatre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, 12.3.2016 (CS)

Royal Irish Academy of Music –Seán Boylan, Sarah Brady, Éadaoin Copeland (piano) and Callan Coughlan
Guildhall School of Music and Drama – Claire Lees, Michelle Santiago (piano), Felicity Turner and Rick Zwart
Juilliard School – Dominik Belavy, Adam Rothenberg (piano), Matthew Swensen and Julia Wolcott


Directors – Iain Burnside, Conor Hanratty
Designer – Sunny Smith
Movement Director – Victoria Newlyn
Lighting Designer – Duncan Coombe
Scenic Art Co-ordinator – Sneha Karmakar

What do you get if you mix the music of George Butterworth, Flotsam and Jetsam (the Anglo-Australian musical comedy duo of the 1920s and 30s) and Scottish-born Australian singer-songwriter Eric Bogle with the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy, Seamus Heaney, Jessie Pope and Wislawa Szymborska?

Iain Burnside has previously devised several imaginative and thought-provoking theatrical ‘explorations’, combining music, words, design and movement to explore the lives of the English poet and composer Ivor Gurney (A Soldier and a Maker), the 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, (Journeying Boys), Clara Schumann and Brahms (Shining Armour which provide a narrative, with its own subtext, to link the songs of Brahms’s Die schöne Magelone) and, most recently, Schubert and his circle of Viennese friends (Why Does the Queen Die?).

Now, in collaboration with Irish theatre and opera director, Conor Hanratty, Burnside has created a new experimental programme of songs and poems, exploring war and conflict: Drums and Guns.  ‘New’ is perhaps a misnomer because Burnside has visited this theme before, in his 2010 piece Lads in Their Hundreds which was similarly eclectic and was also presented in a semi-staged format, the set populated with just a few chairs and two pianos – the pianists being called upon to make a vocal contribution too!  The stage of Milton Court Theatre was decorated with descending banners bearing maps of the tapestry of trench-lines on the Western Front: when Duncan Coombe’s lighting shone a green, red or blue glow upon them, the lines on the semi-opaque banners seemed to transform into the lead tracery of stain glassed windows, lending an air of solemnity.

Drums and Guns has brought together a trio of illustrious international institutions: the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Guildhall School of Music and Drama and New York’s Juilliard School.  Burnside has commented, ‘I wanted a programme that would speak to each of our three nationalities. While Irish peace-keeping troops are currently serving in Lebanon and Syria, US and UK armies are more actively engaged, their soldiers much the same age as tonight’s performers’.  The programme also looks back 100 years, to the 1916 Easter Rising and to the Battle of the Somme.

In the interests of ‘continuity and contrast’, a list of the items to be performed was withheld from the audience until after the performance.  Certainly, the opening sequence of text and song illustrated the desired fluidity, establishing a poignant mood of memory and loss, with sad reflections on those young – and ‘golden’ – friends, who would not be seen again.  Felicity Turner commenced the programme with a direct and clear narration of Glyn Maxwell’s ‘My Grandfather at the Pool’.  The poem’s affecting central image – a photograph of joking young men, only one of whom, the poet-speaker’s grandfather, would return from the trenches – accorded well with the sentiments of George Butterworth’s setting of Housman’s ‘With Rue my heart is laden’, which was gently sung by the female voices.  Love and loss intertwined in more bitter fashion in Samuel Barber’s ‘I hear an army’: the aggressive, galloping accompaniment mimics the thunderous approach of an armed battalion but also suggests the anger of betrayal felt after the end of a relationship, and soprano Julia Wolcott’s repetitions of ‘my love’ were strong and penetrating.  Moreover, the plunging charioteers who ‘come shaking in triumph their long, green’ are surely a symbolic presage of the Easter Rising that would come just a few years after James Joyce published his poem.

I can appreciate the desire to avoid the audience burying their heads deep in their programmes while struggling to read text in the dimly lit auditorium and overlooking the detail on stage.  But it was a lot to ask of the performers – who were assisted by only limited stage apparatus – to establish a range of different contexts and to make the short sequences cohere, both internally and with each other; and it was not surprisingly that, in the absence of text or surtitles, occasionally the focus of a sequence was not entirely clear.

However, in some cases the context and circumstance were communicated effectively.  Having collectively recited Jessie Pope’s ‘Socks’, the girls pivoted with panache into Herman Darewski’s up-tempo WW1-era song about ‘Sister Susie’ who is ‘sewing shirts for soldiers’ – in vain, in turns out, as ‘they’d sooner sleep in thistles, than the saucy soft short shirts for soldiers sister Susie sews’.  This was a cleanly enunciated, well gestured rendition.

Similarly, Sarah Brady captured the profundity beneath the apparent simplicity of Padraic Fallon’s portrait of an Irish soldier in British Army uniform, en route for the Great War, and death in Asia Minor, in the poem ‘Dardanelles 1916’.  And this reading was a perfect prelude to tenor Matthew Svensen’s rendition of Lennox Berkeley’s Walter de la Mare setting, ‘The Song of the Soldiers’, with its lingering images: ‘Rank on rank of ghostly soldiers marching o’er the fen,/ Moving like a shadow to the fate the brave must dree’.  Brian Elias’s unaccompanied song, ‘Meet me in the Green Glen’ concluded the sequence.  Elias’s song is one of a cycle of five unaccompanied songs to poems by John Clare, and presents the protagonist’s repeated yearning for reunion with a beloved: the female voices sang with sweet, sustained tenderness, their voices lilting easily through the freely changing time signatures.

Direct reflections upon the Easter Rising began with Seamus Heaney’s ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ which the late Nobel Prize winning poet wrote in 1966, a time when many Irish poets and artists were seeking to commemorate the 1916 insurrection.  Heaney looked back still further, to 21 June 1798, when the croppies – so-called because they wore their hair cropped, in contrast to the long-hair favoured by the aristocracy of the time – marched up Vinegar Hill, where they were cornered and many were slaughtered by British artillery bombardment.  The British buried the bodies in mass shallow graves; but the barley that the croppies carried in their pockets grew, nourished by their own decaying flesh, keeping the seeds of rebellion alive, and bringing new life from death.

The striking bitterness created by the juxtaposition of beautiful and macabre images – the hillside is so soaked in blood it seems to ‘blush’ – was further intensified in the ensuing performance of T. C. Kelly’s setting of Pádraig Pearse’s ‘The Mother’.  Written the evening before Pearse’s execution, the poem describes the feelings of his mother on the death of her two sons – it was initially banned for broadcast by RTE for being too inflammatory!  Sarah Brady’s rendition powerfully conveyed the emotional turbulence of the song.  After such intensity, the haunting beauty of E. J. Moeran’s ‘Twilight’ was sung with simple directness by Claire Lees; she let John Masefield’s touching words speak for themselves: ‘I think of the friends who are dead, who were dear long ago in the past,/ Beautiful friends who are dead, though I know that death cannot last’.  Baritone Sean Boylan’s performance of John Ireland’s ‘The Cost’ was an urgent, impassioned close to the sequence, as the protagonist of Eric Thirkell Cooper’s poem melodramatically renounced his honour and victory, begging instead for ‘my friend that used to be,/ Somehow be given back to me’.

Through the unfolding series, the choreography was slick, transitions smooth – at times one barely noticed that the various pianists had changed places – and performances committed, though in the busier ensembles not all singers were equally at home with the details of the movement sequences and gestures.  But, given that the performers had only one week to put this ambitious performance together, co-ordination and partnership were impressive.

Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Big Ask’ was recited collectively and finely timed, the variety of voice and tone suggesting the incredulity, hostility and cynicism behind the unceasing interrogation – ‘Guantanamo Bay – how many detained? How many grains in a sack?’, ‘Where was Saddam when they found him at last?/ Maybe holed under a shack.’  The multiple indicters left the ‘accused’ nowhere to hide.

The programme presented both the familiar and little known.  The former were represented by items such as Herbert Hughes’ arrangement of the traditional Irish folk-song, ‘Johnny I hardly knew ye’ – known to Americans as ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’, and – in a brief glance towards Wales – ‘Ar Hyd Y Nos’, (All Through the Night) which Dutch baritone Rick Zwart delivered with mellifluent grace, at a slow tempo but full of self-assurance, and with a warmth of feeling worthy of Terfel himself!

There were new commissions too in the form of the very different responses of two RIAM postgraduate composers, Gavin Brennan and Chris Moriarty, to Richard Swanson’s recent poem, ‘Baghdad Email’ – which also presented some unsettling visual reminders of more recent wars and atrocities.

We, and the cast, were never allowed to settle into passive complacency, and changes of mood were effective – as when music-hall songs were interposed between the classical or folk items.  So, the pert march of John Ireland’s ‘The Soldier’s Return’ took on a more acerbic hue when we realised that the soldier had returned as a ghost; but there was not time to dwell on the pathos, before we were swept exuberantly into Flotsam and Jetsam’s ‘Is he an Aussie, is he Lizzie?’, which in turn segued into ‘And the band played Waltzing Matilda’ in which Zwart once again wowed with his heart-winning tone and phrasing.

Essentially, this programme seemed to say, war is war is war – nothing changes, nobody learns, everyone suffers: those who fight, those who stay behind and wait, or hope, for the day of return, those whose countries are ravaged, those whose hearts are broken.  And, a reprise of Butterworth’s song left us reflecting on poignant images: ‘By brooks too broad for leaping/ The lightfoot boys are laid; The rose-lipt girls are sleeping/ In fields where roses fade.’

Claire Seymour

Drums and Guns will be performed on 28 April at the Juilliard School, New York.

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