This was undoubtedly the most uplifting and moving evening I’ve spent in the theatre this year. A community opera with an all-age cast of 180 (youngest child on stage appeared to be around a year old), Silver Birch, directed by Karen Gillingham, tells the story of Jack who served in Iraq, all set again the community and family he leaves behind. Jessica Duchen who wrote the libretto based Jack’s story partly on the experience of Jay Smith, ex Irish Guards, who was in the audience the night I saw Silver Birch.
The juxtaposition of the children back home playing and taunting in the playground and the horror of the front line – one of the most effective on-stage evocations of war I’ve ever seen was almost unbearably poignant. Roxanna Panufnik’s fine music is full of mood change too. She gives us, for example, a sparky setting of the traditional Soldier Soldier Will You Marry Me? contrasted with the acrobatic, squaddy sequence with chanting and marching to tattoo-style music. It is, incidentally, remarkable what high quality work a highly skilled movement director (Natasha Khamjani) can get from a group of young non-professsionals. There are several series of make-you-gasp flips and somersaults from younger marchers too.
Underlying and underpinning the plot is the ghostly presence of Siegfried Sassoon (Bradley Travis) and quotations from his poetry are woven into the libretto. I saw Silver Birch on the day when people were amassing in Belgium to mark the 100th anniversary of Passchendaele. The futility and sameness of war could not have been clearer.
Six professionals, mostly seasoned Garsington performers, are at the centre of this show and there is a strong collaborative sense of everyone learning from everyone else. Sam Furness (tenor), whose character is deeply damaged by the war, sings with cracking emotion as Jack. Darren Jeffrey (bass) is strong as his father, bullying but actually troubled, Victoria Simmonds delights as his anguished mother, Sarah Redgwick as his teacher and there’s a nice performance from James Way as the (slightly) younger brother who goes to war with Jack and returns injured. On the night I saw the show William Saint played the child, boy-treble little brother, Leo, and Katya Harlan was sweet and feisty as the family’s youngest child, Chloe. She keeps in touch with her favourite brother while he’s away using the password “silver birch” because the nearby tree has grown to maturity during Jack’s lifetime. It, like Jack, is damaged at the end but there’s hope for both.
Part of the aim of Garsington’s community opera (usually once every three years) is to bring in participants and audience who might not usually have anything to do with opera. It seemed to be succeeding at every level. At the beginning we were introduced to some of the people involved including several of the young people (there are young players alongside professionals in the orchestra too), a woman who has “historic domestic abuse issues” and a man related to Seigfried Sassoon. It was also good to see the stage manager, Paul Carr, entertainingly explaining what he and his colleagues, including some youngsters, do.
I really hope that this fine work does not begin and end at Wormsley with three Garsington Opera performances in the heart of idyllic Oxfordshire countryside. It deserves many more outings – soon.