The Wildean young poet Rupert Brooke revels in the self-absorbed, upper classes of Edwardian Oxford and London at the turn of the twentieth century. He finds virtue in beauty, love, poetry and little else. Vain, pretentious and excessive is his behaviour, he manipulates his friends and lovers, all in the name of art and pleasure. Though not a particularly likeable person, his poetry betrays emotional depth and inner conflict, and his social circle flocks to his talent and intensity. Verge of Strife largely focuses on his young life of frivolity, turbulent relationships and their reflection in his poems. Eventually known for his war poetry, this play celebrates his writing’s evolution through the lens of his life’s eras and the women he loved. The poetic but sedate script needs more action as it meanders through Edwardian summers, and nuanced performances are appropriately restrained, making this a somewhat sleepy aural bath.
Much of the story involves parties, encounters with friends and suitors, and a life of indulgent leisure and writing. The dialogue is pretty and light, with beauty but little substance. The narrative flutters rather than sharply rises and falls, presenting snapshots from his life rather than a continuous plot line. Though this mirrors real life, it does not make for particularly dramatic theatre. There is also a sharp change of direction in the final section of the play, presenting Rupert in a completely different role than that of his carefree youth. The contrast is sudden and not clearly explained; the lack of gradual change from wafting, emotional poet to no-nonsense commander jars and feels like there are scenes missing that explain how his life so dramatically altered. The minor characters and their potential to conflict with Rupert are also underused – Rupert is the sole focus throughout, with everyone else merely supporting.
Jonny Labey takes on the verbose Rupert, meticulously sculpting delicate and flirtatious mannerisms. The character is frustratingly shallow for much of the play, denying Labey much freedom to achieve any depth. He does effectively capture Rupert’s growing instability building up to his remarkable transition into a man of real responsibility, and his chemistry with the female characters is undeniable. Emma Barclay as the solemn intellectual Katherine Cox, and Sam Warren as his openly gay friend, are excellent and full of character.
With most of the cast delivering strong performances and pretty language enveloping the senses, The Verge of Strife certainly has its positives but the script needs further work to add clarity and substance in order to communicate its message about the impact of war on a young artist.
The Verge of Strife runs through 29th August.
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