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Will Harvey's War at the Everyman Theatre

PUBLISHED: 15:46 04 August 2014

Dress rehearsal of Will Harvey's War / Picture by Carl Hewlett/TWM - Thousand Word Media Ltd

Dress rehearsal of Will Harvey's War / Picture by Carl Hewlett/TWM - Thousand Word Media Ltd

© Thousand Word Media

Katie Jarvis went along to the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham to see Will Harvey's War, a semi-biographical tale of Gloucestershire poet F.W. Harvey. The play kick-starts a year of World War 1 centenary events across the county.

Dress rehearsal of Will Harvey's War / Picture by Carl Hewlett/TWM - Thousand Word Media LtdDress rehearsal of Will Harvey's War / Picture by Carl Hewlett/TWM - Thousand Word Media Ltd

“All art is autobiography. Whatever happens, happens to oneself. And whether events happen in the flesh or in the soul; they happen.” FW Harvey, 1935

You have to love Will Harvey. You have to really love Will Harvey. (You see – enough to split an infinitive.) That great crime writer Andrew Taylor – like Harvey, based in the Forest of Dean – loves him for his poetry, specifically the wonderfully fowl line, From troubles of the world I turn to ducks (voted a favourite top 100 poem in 1996 by a nation also convinced of the Prozac qualities of water-birds). Indeed, Harvey became known as the Laureate of Gloucestershire, the county’s most famous poet during the post-Great War years.

I love him for his bohemian ways, which ill-fitted his job as a solicitor: he’d often refuse money for the work he did, which is why the poorer people of the Forest of Dean so loved him, too. He was a forward-thinker, moreover: a defence solicitor who thought jail an utterly pointless institution.

You only have to look at the photograph of Harvey in the theatre programme to see he was full of humanity, with a humungous sense of humour to boot. Even though he’s in full WWI officer’s uniform, the cheeky grin indicates a man who has just placed a whoopee cushion on the seat of the photographer.

Dress rehearsal of Will Harvey's War / Picture by Carl Hewlett/TWM - Thousand Word Media LtdDress rehearsal of Will Harvey's War / Picture by Carl Hewlett/TWM - Thousand Word Media Ltd

And yet Will Harvey’s War, which premiered at Cheltenham Everyman on July 30, was an entirely different beast: for it explored the deeper recesses of this poet’s mind; the darker events that helped form it. The play is based on an until-now unpublished novel by Harvey (the first edition has been brought out to coincide with this new drama), which seamlessly blends fact with fiction. Adapted and directed by Paul Milton, this was no easy task: “My dilemma was whether to create a play that was biography or to create one that was a fictional adventure story. I decided on the latter as I felt it would make better theatre,” he writes.

And so we begin with Will Harvey and his brother Eric, playing at being soldiers with a backdrop of May Hill floating against a flaming sky. Their place in society is illustrated by the presence of a nanny, and Will’s attempt at replacing his own plummy vowels with a Gloucestershire accent that’s just like Timmy Taylor’s, who works in the family’s stable-yard.

We get hints of his unconventional personality: the strange scene where Timmy Taylor is trampled by a horse, screaming out in agony, sees the young Will watching fascinatedly, suppressing wild giggles as the injured man’s groans get ever louder. His pronouncement, later, that when men are not “feverishly employed in making money, they are feverishly employed in spending it”, foreshadows his real-life political views, which favoured distributism: a Roman Catholic alternative to both capitalism and socialism, based on parity of ownership.

The beauty of this play lies particularly in the cast: the Everyman’s community choirs and musicians join forces with Cheltenham Silver Band to create music that ranges from Holst’s Mars to Pack Up Your Troubles. As a supporter of local choirs and musicians, Harvey would have loved this.

Dress rehearsal of Will Harvey's War / Picture by Carl Hewlett/TWM - Thousand Word Media LtdDress rehearsal of Will Harvey's War / Picture by Carl Hewlett/TWM - Thousand Word Media Ltd

In fact, there were numerous wonderful local amateurs in this production (particularly the excellent children), and only four professional actors: Daniel Cane as Will; Laurence Aldridge as Eric, his brother; Amanda Gordon as the gypsy girl with whom Will has an affair (one of the fictional aspects); and Rachel Dawson in various key roles. All did the production proud.

And it was quite a production, combining dance, music, dream-like sequences and a simple stage with some fantastically-effective illusions: none more so than the photo-frames that descended at key moments, framing actors in sepia stills.

As I say, the play is based on Harvey’s own novel, Will Harvey – A Romance, which flirts with the truth. Eric did, indeed, die in the horrors of that dreadful war; Will was, indeed, captured by Germans. He spent many of those long prison-camp months (including a spell in solitary), writing some of his best poetry. His bravery during the war was recognised with a Distinguished Conduct Medal, which remains unmentioned in the play (and, presumably, in his novel).

It’s interesting. The one thing for me that was missing was that mischievous sense of humour. But, then, things are never quite as they seem. This man, who cared so much for the poor, was awarded his medal on a night-sally with a fellow soldier, during which they killed three Germans. War is war; but one wonders how that played on his conscience.

He might have been a more recognised poet had he not lived at the same time as other greats – Eliot and Auden. But he left us with such delights as A Gloucestershire Lad At Home and Abroad, Gloucestershire Friends. And those ducks…

Ducks is a poem of pure comic delight, in which God smiles at his own creation: And he’s probably laughing still at the sound that came out of its bill! Yet, when you learn that it was written after seeing a POW drawing a chalk picture of ducks in a pond, only then can you begin to imagine the circumstances which inspired it.

And what better legacy than a reminder that, amongst gloom and tragedy, there’s always room for a smile at the absurd.

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• For more on the county’s involvement in the First World War, visit Gloucestershire Remembers WWI at www.glosremembers.co.uk

• For more on Will Harvey, visit the FW Harvey Society at www.fwharveysociety.co.uk

• And for a full Cheltenham Everyman programme, including two forthcoming war-based productions, Lotty’s War (October 13-18) and Regeneration (October 21-25), visit www.everymantheatre.org.uk

For more from Katie Jarvis, follow her on Twitter: @katiejarvis

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