Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Alexander Knox: It Is Easy To Be Dead

By | Published on Friday 11 November 2016


You may already have seen ‘It Is Easy To Be Dead’ at The Finborough earlier this year, where it played to much critical acclaim. Fortunately for those who missed it, it’s transferred to Trafalgar Studios for a four week run.
The show is about Charles Sorley, a poet who fought and died in the First World War, but who seems unjustifiably all but forgotten. To find out more about the play and its subject I spoke to lead actor Alexander Knox, ahead of the West End dates.

CM: Can you start by telling us about your role in the play? It’s based on a real person, isn’t it?
AK: Yes, Charles Sorley was a Scottish poet who died at the Battle of Loos in 1915, aged 20. But that doesn’t tell half the story. Before the war, he travelled to Germany and fell in love with the country and the people. In fact he was still in Germany when war broke out, and was briefly arrested because they suspected him of being a spy! He managed to get back to England, where he signed up to the army, and was soon sent to France to fight against the country he had grown to love.

This gave him such a unique insight: he knew from the off what a disaster the war was going to be. Of course, it was a time when people didn’t want to read anything unpatriotic or which spoke out against the war, and so it’s probably no surprise that Charles Sorley isn’t better known today. But he was a remarkable poet. He paved the way for writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and yet scarcely features in most War Poetry Anthologies.

CM: What happens in the play? Does it have a linear narrative?
AK: First of all, I wouldn’t describe this as a play about the First World War. I suppose you could argue it’s really the story of a gap year that goes terribly wrong. Charlie leaves school early because he fears he might otherwise turn into a conceited public schoolboy, and travels to Germany. After several wonderful months he is a few days into a walking trip when a stranger runs up to him and tells him that war has broken out. It’s only then that the war begins to take over the story, as it did Charlie’s life. He didn’t see it coming.

As well as his poetry, Charlie left behind the most amazing paper trail of letters, which his parents gathered together and published after the war. As well as being heart-breakingly poignant, they are also some of the funniest things I have ever read. He had the most wonderful eye for observing detail, and managed to maintain his sense of humour right up until the very end.

CM: Do Sorley’s own writings appear in the script?
AK: It’s one of the many wonderful things about this play that most of the lines I get to say were actually written by Charles Sorley. He was a young man living life to the full – exploring, rebelling, and forever getting himself into awkward situations – and all the while he was recording everything he saw around him. He was also dazzlingly intelligent – so well read for a boy just out of school – and yet he wore it lightly: everyone he met seemed to like him, whether it was the German family who took him into their home, his teachers and friends at school, the German prisoner in the next-door cell when he was locked up on suspicion of being a spy, or the soldiers he ultimately led into battle. He hoped that after the war Britain and Germany would be able to join hands and ‘laugh at the old pain’. His message of peace and tolerance still sounds so pertinent today.

CM: How did you approach the role? Did you do any research for it? Does the fact that you are playing a real person change your approach at all?
AK: So much has been written about the First World War, and it was difficult to know where to start at first, although I should say that Neil McPherson did so much of the work for me. It’s a beautiful play, and by the time I finished reading it for the first time, I had a really strong image in my mind of who Charles Sorley was. Of course, I then went away and read his poetry and collected letters. I also read his biography, and met the lady who wrote it, Jean Moorcroft Wilson. We’ve kept in touch, and she’s proved a real help. My schoolfriend Daniel is now a captain in the army, and he taught me how to salute and march properly.

Since the run at the Finborough, I got in touch with Charles Sorley’s old school, Marlborough College, and they very kindly offered to give me a tour. Charlie was a big walker and once walked to Marlborough from his parents’ home in Cambridge, so I spent a night in a Swindon Airbnb and re-traced the final fifteen miles of his trek to school before being shown around.

Of course, you do feel an extra responsibility when playing someone who really existed, particularly when it’s someone who you believe history has unfairly overlooked.

CM: Writer Neil McPherson is also AD of the Finborough Theatre – has he had time to be involved in the production?
AK: Neil has been in and out of rehearsals from the start, and has been such a help. Writing this play has been a real labour of love for him. I hope he won’t mind me saying that he first considered writing it in the same year I was born! There isn’t very much he doesn’t know about Charles Sorley, and I’ve learned such a lot from him.

CM: How did you yourself get involved with the production?
AK: Well, as soon as I read the script I knew that this was a part I would love to play. I had a great first meeting with Max, and then a second with Max and Neil. I was in the middle of a field on a friend’s stag do when the call came through offering me the part.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the rest of the cast?
AK: Tom Marshall and Jenny Lee play Charles Sorley’s parents, Professor William and Janet Sorley. They have been a joy to work with, and I’ve learned so much from watching them. We’ve also been blessed on this show to have the pianist, Elizabeth Rossiter, and the tenor, Hugh Benson. They perform music from the period, which Neil has brilliantly woven into the play. It’s a small company, and we’re very close. We’ve been led so well by our director, Max Key; and the producers, Bréon Rydell and Amanda Castro, have shown such passion for the play from the start.

CM: It’s a really sad story, of course – do you find it emotionally draining to tell it?
AK:  There are so many brilliant young actors out there, all desperate to be in work, so it would be a bit rich of me to complain about a job being emotionally draining!

Also, we’re playing this show in Trafalgar Studios, which is on Whitehall, and only a stone’s throw from the Cenotaph; our press night is taking place on Armistice Day. Fortunately, my job is only to pretend to go to war. For millions of others, it was a reality, and I bet none of them had a nice warm bed to go back to every night!

CM: It’s got a four week run at Trafalgar Studios. What happens after that? Are there touring dates planned?
AK: I really hope that this isn’t the end of the journey for this play. Although Charlie went to school in England, he and his family were proud Scots, and I think it would be wonderful to take this play north of the border. So many people during our run at the Finborough said how touched they were by the story, and we’d love to share it with as many people as possible. Of course, no one is still alive who fought in the war, and so it’s the voices of people like Charles Sorley who keep their memory alive. He died at such a young age, and so long ago, and yet his voice still sounds remarkably fresh – almost as if some of his lines were written only yesterday.

What’s next for you?
AK: As well as some exciting acting projects, I am also a writer, and in the process of developing two plays.

‘It Is Easy To Be Dead’ is on at Trafalgar Studios from 9 Nov-3 Dec. See this page here to book.