By Carmel Shortall
“Take desire way…death shall serve instead”
Off the Page are back at the Etcetera – this time with Mansel David’s solo show showcasing the life and work of poet and classical scholar, A. E. Housman (1859 – 1936).
The stage is set with a lectern from which David reads Housman’s poetry and a table from which he reads extracts of Housman’s letters. On the table sits a photograph of Moses Jackson with whom Housman was in love for much of his life. His homosexuality, at a time when it certainly did not dare speak its name, provides a subtext for much of Housman’s poetry – most overtly in “Oh who is that young sinner…” written after the trial of Oscar Wilde, in which a young man is sentenced to prison for “the colour of his hair”. It is declaimed in full from the lectern.
Housman is best known for his cycle of poems: A Shropshire Lad which he self-published in 1896. It has not been out of print since. Sitting now at the table David, as Housman, tells us that he has been an atheist since age twenty-one, a deist since thirteen and a pagan since eight. These beliefs or lack of them suffuse his poetry.
Strangers to Housman’s poetry will still be familiar with phrases and lines from the poems which have been borrowed for titles of books, films and TV programmes, for instance: P. D. James’ A Taste for Death, Bond film Die Another Day and Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills.
As the show draws to a close an elegiac tone creeps into the readings and, at last, overcome with emotion David leaves his book on the lectern, takes a last look at the photograph of Moses Jackson and quietly leaves the stage – a poignant and moving moment.
Mansel David’s wry delivery brings to life Housman’s acerbic wit and the scholar’s self-regard is tempered by irony and humour. The simple technique of breaking up readings from correspondence and poetry, the private and the public, feelings and the intellect works well and creates rhythm and pace for the production as well as highlighting apparent contradictions in Housman’s life and work.
The show runs until Friday 17th August with performances on the 8th, 12th, 16th and 17that 4.30pm in the Etcetera Theatre. Tickets are £8, concs £6.