A one-man show about a spare British poet - a challenging prospect for a sweaty Sunday in a tiny black box theatre. And, indeed, a challenging prospect for Mansel David.
Usually, the subject of this type of show will be one of two things; a well-known popular personage, interesting by virtue of their fame, or a complex character, drawing you in as you attempt to understand them.
Housman is an odd choice because he is neither of these. A small, fussy man, he seems to have lived an entire life defined by one event; a deep, burning love, unrequited (possibly even unnoticed) by its object, Moses Jones.
It's only when Moses is spoken about that we see the glimmer of something vital in the character. This isn't to blame David, who has little to work with, but it does mean that the extent of characterisation is generally restricted to a single facial expression - a sort of bewildered but judgemental eyebrow raise accompanied by a withering putdown. The rest is a portrait of a man who seemingly gave up emotion at an early age, who will not end his life but does not want it to continue – an oddly chilling prospect.
The bulk of the show’s content is made up of readings of Housman's poems and letters. And it’s these poems and letters that save the show. Beforehand, my knowledge of his work was, to be blunt, limited but now I have a new appreciation. Where Housman’s outward personality is stiff and brittle, the emotional life evident in his poetry couldn’t be more different.
Works like ‘Look not in my eyes, for fear’ and ‘Shake hands’ have a sweet hopelessness to them which perfectly captures the sting of unshakeable but unrequited love (a subject which obviously dominated Housman’s existence). And his dealings with his family members betray a warmth lacking from his treatment of friends and colleagues.
The contrast given by these works means Housman’s character becomes less one of miserable distemper and more one of wordless restraint. But without any real context for the writings (what stage of his life was he in, where in his career) we still cannot guess at what desires he might have been restraining.
Still, with the show structured around recitation, and little personal narrative, we're left watching what feels more like a lecture than a work of theatre. And for a lecture it's fascinating but for a piece of entertainment, like its subject, a little bloodless.