Verge of Strife

Thu 4th – Mon 29th August 2016

reviews

Lizzie Buckman

at 22:13 on 7th Aug 2016

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Arsalan Sattari’s latest work ‘Verge of Strife’ follows the life Rupert Brooke, described by W. B. Yeats as “the handsomest man in all England”, now remembered as a tragic Adonis-like figure after his death in the First World War. Johnny Labey’s Brooke struts and stumbles through his twenties defined by vanity, youthfulness and talent, breaking the hearts of men, women and girls at university and beyond, whilst battling against his own tortured soul.

The script is respectfully grounded in Brookes' own writing, both in the fragments of letters and poetry slipped into the dialogue, and in the poems read by the ensemble. You don’t need to be a poetry buff to appreciate Brooke’s poetry here: as Nick Baldock’s writing integrates it fluidly into the matter of the play, it becomes a shorthand. Baldock’s script is wonderfully unsympathetic with character, showcasing the dichotomy of Brooke’s charm and obnoxiousness. However, this is a restless play. The stage hardly settles on one scene before the actors dart into another, and as a result ‘The Verge of Strife’ looks at Brooke’s life in great breadth, but could benefit from more depth.

It is Brooke’s character that drives this play forward, and he is sometimes the only discernible link between scenes. Labey captures Brooke’s arrogance almost infuriatingly well, whilst showing Brooke mature over the span of the play with commendable subtlety. Special mention must also go to Sam Warren, whose portrayal of Eddie Marsh and the bumbling infatuated professor is both funny and genuinely moving. Set against the backdrop of an simple yet precisely detailed Cambridge office, perhaps the best way to describe ‘The Verge of Strife’ is cohesive. The costumes are quietly fantastic, and the sound design underscoring the piece is uplifting, but integrated so smoothly as to be almost imperceptible.

At moments the staging stagnated, and after gratuitously stripping, Labey hardly puts on his trousers before taking them off again in the next scene, without any discernible purpose. Brooke’s death is also accompanied on stage by a handful of polystyrene gravestones which unfortunately preclude the solemnity of the situation.

This said, the tumultuous disarray of emotions lifted from the script generate a captivating and intriguing performance. ‘The Verge of Strife’ is supported by a fantastic team of actors and designers and, whilst it can’t be said to be groundbreaking or experimental, it is certainly very, very good.

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Ruby Gilding

at 10:06 on 8th Aug 2016

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The line “If I should die, think only this of me…” opens one of the First World War’s most poignant verses, and ‘Verge of Strife’ dramatises how we have come to think of the writer behind this paean, the poet Rupert Brooke. His extraordinary lifetime is a ripe subject for theatre, and the fascination surrounding Brooke has already been capitalised on by novels such as Jill Dawson’s ‘The Great Lover’. Nonetheless, Nick Baldock’s evocative play reassesses Brooke’s voice in the war through the overarching trajectory of Brooke’s tumultuous career and personal life.The show’s expressive dialogue imbues the play with a lyricism that measured up to Brooke’s own poetry.

In the lead role, Jonny Labey exposes the volatility that lies behind Brooke’s charming youth and beauty. Labey powerfully renders the poet’s flaws, and the turmoil he produced in the upper echelons of society. At times, his performance overly fixates on the petulance of the young star, and this made for a character that was unlovable but redeemed by the response he brought out in others.

Brooke’s maltreated love interest Emma Barclay gives a strong and convincing performance. Indeed both female characters are well developed, although their interesting resistance to Brooke’s advances could be explored further. The play’s exploration of sexual politics is occasionally heavy-handed, when dealing with the complexities of homoeroticism in Edwardian society. Despite the outwardly frivolous love affairs that make up the play, it does capture the atmosphere of an era frustratingly closeted by social restrictions.

‘Verge of Strife’ draws rewarding parallels with classicism, by innovatively likening Brooke to the God Apollo. As an ensemble the actors are captivating, and the supporting actors' haunting song cast them as a Greek chorus. This decision adeptly handles the play’s shifting time frames, and further still, the unfolding narrative of the character’s different experiences of Brooke.

The multifunctional stage design accordingly transforms itself from a Cambridge college to battlefield, with a polished and elegant set. Baldock’s script captures the fragility of Brooke’s hedonistic pre-war world, and continues the trend to interpret his poetry autobiographically under the premise that “there will be no poetry after the war if we haven’t lived it”.

‘Verge of Strife’ depicts the adulation of Brooke as he spins out of control, with a faithfulness and respect to the remarkable legacy of the poet.

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