This time last year one of the first theatres out of the traps as far as sharing archived video recordings of their work was concerned (even before the National) was Hampstead Theatre which across a period of a couple of months gave us some fine work to contemplate. Along with many another venue they have been rather quiet of late but a piece of work they commissioned has now turned up as one of the BBC’s audio offerings in their Lights Up festival in lieu of getting it onto the actual stage. This is Folk by Nell Leyshon which tells the true story of Cecil Sharp the musicologist and collector of English folk music at the turn of the 20th century responsible for kick starting the revival of interest in traditional songs.
Sharp is a London music school principal who takes himself off to Somerset in 1903 to get some peace and quiet and get on with some serious composing which he feels is his real calling. He stays with two sisters Louie and Lucy Hooper who have been brought up in the oral tradition learning songs that have been passed down through generations. Louie particularly has an affinity for the songs and probably knows over 300. Sharp wants to save them for posterity by gathering them together and writing them down.
There follows an interestingly dramatised debate about how doing so will change them forever, removing them from the tradition in which they were constructed and altering them irreparably. The songs will become better known and live on but at the cost of removing them from their immediate environment and taking away the very thing which makes them special. Neither is it entirely clear whether Sharp’s motives are altruistic or whether he is just a seeker after fame; in essence it becomes a play about a very modern subject, that of cultural appropriation.
That Sharp is played by Simon Russell Beale does the piece no harm at all – he could read the proverbial telephone directory and make it interesting as far as I am concerned. Here he gives a gentle understated performance which shows the character at odds with himself as he wrestles with his conscience trying to do what he feels is right and justifying it by invoking national pride.
He posits that the other nations of the UK all have their own identity as far as music is concerned but that England is “das Land ohne Musik” (“the land without music”). Russell Beale demonstrates how Sharp convinces himself that his mission has a national purpose and imbues his performance with a sense of almost religious fervour. He is matched by Amanda Lawrence as the at first accommodating but increasingly uneasy Louie who gives her heartfelt reasons for leaving well alone a sense of real passion. Her less convinced sister is played by Amanda Wilkin who adopts a more pragmatic view of life. The last character, portrayed by Stuart McLoughlin is the rather obviously named farmhand John England. Although all three provide excellent performances it is Russell Beale who really stands out.
Woven through the narrative are several examples of the music which Sharp collected – sometimes complete songs and sometimes just snatches. They are generally sung without accompaniment – musical director Gary Yershon wisely lets the songs speak for themselves. They invoke the Somerset settings in which the action takes place and the moments when the two sisters duet and tie the songs to features of their immediate landscape are particularly evocative of a time when most people never left their own environments. Susan Roberts’ direction is suitably unshowy and lets the dialogue and songs speak for themselves. To be honest I’m not sure what more would have been achieved through placing the play onstage as it seemed to be a perfect fit for an audio production – just take yourself off to the nearest open space, kick back and press play.