Review- Ivor Gurney, A Voice Apart- Fringe Club


By: Lynn Gong


Ivor Gurney is an English poet-composer who fought in World War I. After being wounded and gassed, he was sent to Stone House Mental Hospital in 1922 and struggled with post-war trauma in the last 15 years of his life in psychiatric hospitals before dying of tuberculosis aged just 47. His fame only came posthumously. In Penguin Classics' 2012 anthology Three Poets of the First World War, he is featured along with Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg. In 2014, Tim Kendall filmed a documentary on him titled Ivor Gurney, the Poet Who Loved the War for BBC4.


Two decades ago, Jonathan Douglas played Ivor Gurney for the first time. Originally directed by the playwright, Piers Gray (then a professor of English literature at HKU  and brother of better known playwright Simon), the show debuted in Hong Kong and was later presented in Edinburgh's Festival Fringe. Now directed by David Booth and Michael Ingham, the play is being re-run as a solemn commemoration of war veteran soldiers and of inspiring creative figures like Ivor Gurney afflicted by a poetic, troubled soul (such as Piers Gray himself, who died of alcholism a decade ago aged just 49). 


With no unnecessary tricks, Ivor Gurney- A Voice Apart was executed with perfect simplicity and intensity. 


The set design by Karina Zabihi was very good. On the left of the stage, a 1900s mental asylum was beautifully recreated with plenty of details. Jonathan Douglas, as Ivor Gurney, transformed this tidy little space into his intricate interior. The tenor David Quah and pianist Peter Fan took the right side of the stage. As the lighting alternated between the protagonist and the music duo, the monologue and music similarly complemented one another. 


For me, there was something comforting about hearing Ivor Gurney’s music, especially when set to his own words. It transcended the confining physical and mental space. It struck a beautiful balance between order and creativity, a balance that was most dearly sought after by the unstable genius.


Jonathan Douglas’s second-time rendition is (as he said in the post show Q&A) more “refined” and portrays the “guilt” more than pure “mania” of Gurney. Indeed, his performance was very impressive in depicting some of the more heart wrenching scenes. With no background music, the dramatic effects were achieved solely by Jonathan’s flexible physical body and subtle facial expressions. I sat with eyes wide open and feeling extremely sad when Jonathan was desperately eating something in a most uncomfortable position or when he was re-enacting shooting wartime machine guns and pondering over his ambiguous identity as “a maker” of beauty and killing. 


Surprisingly, there was also a tinge of humor in the production, especially when Jonathan was playing different accents and social roles in his monologue. Overall, the language of the script, interweaving poetic sounds and imagery, was deftly integrated through Jonathan’s performance.


Those familiar with Great War Poets and classical music can mine more of the allusions embedded in the dramatic and musical performances. However, even for a complete outsider, the play is still very accessible. Through Jonathan Douglas's engaging performance and the assured delivery and placement of the piano songs, you can easily feel Gurney's love for his birthplace Gloucester counterpointing the agonies felt from his war experiences, among other true human feelings.


Ivor Gurney- A Voice Apart is playing through May 23rd. For more information, click here.

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