“This is the WORST play I have ever seen,” scrawled one audience member on their feedback form after a scratch performance of Enduring Song at Bristol Old Vic's new writing festival a couple of years back. Maybe they were being sarcastic, but if not then this play – performed in-the-round at the scuzzy-chic Southwark Playhouse – has come massively far in development because it is highly original, enjoyable, and hard to categorise into any neat genre.
Genre confusion coupled with parallel narratives as well as subplots galore perhaps perplexed this early reviewer, and I can see why. The show never settles into one style or mood – take your pick at any given time from historical epic, romantic comedy, satire, farce, sitcom, war play. Add any others you can think of and you'll find them here too. The language sounds vaguely Shakespearean at times, kitchen-sink at others.
The problem, at least initially, is the clash of genres, tone, the emotional registers suddenly shifting – too much going on. Not to mention dazzling visual and audio effects to enhance all this: bright lights, shouting, candlelight, gorgeous polyphonic choral music (sung by the cast), chilling screams, dramatic sword fights, ominous drum beats, tender kisses. I could go on. But once I'd relaxed into my seat, Enduring Song washed over me and left a thrilling lasting impression.
This quirky historical epic about the Crusaders – and the devastation they leave behind at home and abroad – tells the story of how a bunch of reasonably nice, “goodly” young men in 11th Century rural France find themselves, overnight, transformed into Christian soldiers marching onward to “liberate” Jerusalem from the nasty Arabs. Recruited by the smooth-talking Bishop of Amiens (Alex Harland), they are grotesquely and amusingly out of their depth. Matthew (Tom Roe), a newly-wed father-to-be and their designated leader, nobly thinks he's going crusading as “an act of love”, but isn't quite sure.
Blackadder and Monty Python-esque farce ensues, but so too does high drama and satire of a corrupt and greedy Church/state. Although similarities with more recent wars like World War I or Iraq/Afganistan are not explicit, they certainly spring to mind.
Meanwhile, a second narrative focuses on family left behind at the failing ancestral farm. Matthew's inept father, Robert (Rafe Beckley), buzzes around the women like an old wasp with decayed wings. Desperate to save the farm at all costs, he even considers forcing his young daughter, Marie (Emma Ballantine), to marry the drippy son of a local businessman to clinch the deal. Family problems cut through the action: in particular, the spectre of Matthew and Marie's long-dead mother looms large and is often a presence on stage even though she's not there.
Enduring Song is a melodramatic ensemble piece with a huge cast of 20. It's as much about delusion and bloodlust as love, territorial conquests as much as the pursuit of godliness. When all 20 sing songs together in harmony, or do their polyphonic humming thing, the sound is beautiful. So too is the choreography – dancing and fighting – watched by the audience from all around the bare stage. Sometimes the diction suffers from too-fast delivery, but with so much kinetic energy on stage it hardly matters. The acting is occasionally wooden, over-enthusiastic, or both, but a million times better than the “worst” I have ever seen.
Writer/director Jesse Briton was nominated for an Evening Standard most promising playwright award for his first play, Bound. He and many of the cast are recent-ish graduates of Essex University's esteemed East 15 Acting School, whose foundations lie in Joan Littlewood's legendary experimental Theatre Workshop. This, Briton's second play, is a more-than-promising follow-up. His third, set in the First World War, will appear later this year.