Verge of Strife

Emerging in a Grecian breastplate of gold, to a poetic backdrop of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est the stage is seemingly set for the presentation of a man whose view of himself is certainly not lacking in confidence, bordering on adulation. Indeed, this quasi-deification of the poet Rupert Brooke is a fitting introduction to this play, focusing on the man behind the verse. At times arrogant, leering, conflicted and desperate, this is a warts-and-all depiction of Brooke, and though not cutting a particularly likeable figure, there is a thread of truth running throughout the portrayal.

Brooke overtly prioritises ‘beauty and youth’ over the wisdom associated with age, and this youthful arrogance is well carried off

Jonny Labey in the starring role as Brooke himself communicates clearly a man whose intellect and upbringing has led to his dissatisfaction with social norms and who strives to exist on a higher artistic plain. His affected accent employed for the role, though at first seemingly a tad overwrought, contains within it natural shades of disdain which comes to be Brooke’s dominant mode throughout the piece. Brooke overtly prioritises ‘beauty and youth’ over the wisdom associated with age, and this youthful arrogance is well carried off by Labey, who warms to his role over the course of the opening scenes.

With his continual references to nature, which Brooke asserts ‘doesn’t lie’, writer Nick Baldock creates in Brooke a man who is seemingly inseparable from his poetry. His emotions are continually at risk of spilling over, and the way in which the various supporting characters react to his puerile outbursts creates much of the drama. In particular, Kirsten Callaghan as Noel Olivier, one of Brooke’s earlier love interests, plays her part with an inner strength and clarity of expression that underlines the contrast between the excessively lyrical Brooke and the more grounded acquaintances surrounding him.

Pleasingly, the latter part of the play goes a long way to adding some crucial development to the character of Brooke, who for the most part sweeps chaotically through a series of turbulent encounters. Seeing his preparations for the outbreak of war, presented with a nobility and resolution previously lacking, finally endears the poet to us. It is perhaps this glimpse of Brooke as a man who does, deep down, care for others as well as for himself that most intrigues as it goes so starkly against much of his previous illustration. Adorned with extracts of poetry, Verge of Strife is an intriguing glimpse of the man behind the poems and, though not an amiable figure, will deepen future encounters with his work.

Reviews by Joshua Clarke

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

Jonny Labey (EastEnders) leads this lyrical ensemble production as WWI poet Rupert Brooke, whose glittering image hid a complex and fretful personality. Living the counter-culture of the Edwardian summer, the young poet played the many parts required of him, exploiting yet despairing at his ability to leave a trail of bruised egos and broken hearts through the upper echelons of society. Based on his letters and poetry, Brooke is put centre stage in this dynamic and moving portrait of a flawed genius. Previous work: ‘Full of lyrical power’ **** (Fest). ‘A valuable history lesson” **** (Stage).