Keeping it real

14th November 2003 at 00:00
Serjeant Musgrave's Dance By John Arden Oxford Stage Company tour

In his preface to Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, John Arden describes the play as realistic, but not naturalistic. Sean Holmes, director of this production, explains that "although the characters are fully formed, they represent something as well. Also, the structure is stark, stripped down and the design has to be stripped down too, with canal, pub or street simply suggested. You are always aware that you are watching a play."

All of which, together with the folk-style songs that frequently break up the dialogue, invokes the name of Brecht. Is the play Brechtian? Holmes says he has come to the conclusion that it is less so than it seems when read. "The songs seem to come quite naturally out of what people do, but in the cleverness of the writing there is, it is true, a slight sense of commentary on the events. But I think in structure it is closer to Shakespeare than anything. Just as in Measure for Measure, the audience are addressed as if they are the crowd within the play, but they are also outside the action, the audience are addressed by Musgrave."

Musgrave and three red-coat soldiers arrive in a town where there is discontent among the miners, and establishment figures are anxious to keep control. The soldiers are taken to be a recruiting band. In fact they have gone AWOL and have a secret of their own: they are travelling with the skeleton of a colleague killed on colonial duty.

Holmes says: "The politics of the play are more complex than simply anti-war. How do you challenge violence? With violence, as Musgrave does? Arden, a pacifist himself, doesn't provide the answer. There is a gap between people's intentions and their feelings. I hope we capture the ambiguity of the play."

There is a poetic earthiness in the language. Holmes says: "There are very few words over two syllables. The language is blunt, bleak, full of Anglo-Saxon words like blood, stone, folk. Annie (the barmaid grieving for her lost soldier and her dead baby) speaks strange, complex poetry, the result of mental illness and grief."

Religion is important in the play. There is a Messiah element in Musgrave himself. Holmes says: "That is a terrible moment in the last scene when he thinks that maybe God wasn't with him after all, that his behaviour is just mania."

Bury St Edmunds November 10-15; York November 17-22Tel: 020 7438 9940

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