OXFORD MUSIC THEATRE
King & Country - Synopsis
Book and Lyrics by Jane Bramwell
(incorporating poems by Roland Leighton d 1915 and Edward Thomas d 1917)
Music by Michael Brand
A note from the writers:
‘King and Country’ is based on ‘The Conquering Hero’, a play by Allan Monkhouse written in 1923 and recently produced to high acclaim at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, London. It is still highly provocative as it deals with the real effect of war including that of shell-shock.
The show uses the play as the basis of the drama, and also incorporates WW1 poems by Roland Leighton (d 1915) and Edward Thomas (d 1917.
The production portrays the effect of the War on local families with the Chorus throughout representing residents, commenting on and taking part in the action.
The opera is set in the years 1914-1916. It takes as its theme ‘War changes Everything’.
The Prologue is set on Remembrance Sunday in the 21st century, around a local War memorial. The names of those who died in WW1 are being read out and in this production these are the names on the Unitarian Church Memorial Window together with soldiers from the Royal Sussex Regiment who lost their lives. There is a moment to reflect on World War 1 and other wars thereafter.
Act 1 follows segue and we are in the front room of the Rokeby family, well-todo Sussex residents. Starting with Dakin the butler they all react to the newspaper headline ‘War Declared’. Colonel Rokeby is a lifelong army man. Margaret, the elder Rokeby daughter is married to Capt. Frank Iredale. Frank is a serving soldier and is immediately sent to France (‘I fight for King and Country’). Stephen Rokeby arrives back from Belgium where he has been on holiday with Christopher Talland who is his best friend and Helen Rokeby’s fiancé. Christopher sings Helen his latest poem
‘And you Helen’ (Edward Thomas). They are very much in love.
Helen and Margaret regard it as a man’s duty to fight. Margaret has a row with Stephen who is a pacifist. When Christopher tells Helen that he is a poet and cannot fight because it offends his beliefs she breaks off their engagement – ‘Bouquet of White Feathers’. (White feathers were traditionally thrown at men who refused to
fight in WW1). War has already divided a family.
Around eight months later Act 2 scene 1 opens at the village recruiting station near the parish church. Stephen is due to preach his first sermon. Col Rokeby is leading the recruiting and some of the men named on the memorial in the Prologue are joining up as the band plays ‘ For King and Country’. In church Stephen unexpectedly preaches an anti-war sermon. The women initially echo his sentiments but the men ask themselves ‘Should I leave my family . . . Should I enlist?’ Stephen rails against politicians – ‘Christ would not fight this War’ – until Margaret and Helen can stand it no longer. They harangue him and then storm out.
From the pulpit Stephen proclaims ‘I am Christ’s Man’, but after a pause Dakin,the Rokeby’s butler, stands up and sings ‘I am the King’s Man’ He has totally misunderstood the sermon. He will enlist. Other men join him as Dakin leads them out of the church.
Scene 2 follows back at the Rokeby house. Dakin is practising his drill encouraged by Mrs Dakin. The men join in. Christopher and Stephen come back to collect their bags. Both are privately shaken by the vehemence of the reaction against Stephen and are questioning their positions – ‘Give a man a sword’. The doorbell rings insistently. Dakin brings in a telegram. Frank has been killed in the trenches. Margaret is prostrate and reminisces with a slow reprise of ‘He fought for King and Country’.
Stephen announces that as a result of Frank’s death he will join up as a medical orderly. Christopher says he will join up too: he cannot write any more. To be a man, he must go and fight. Helen re-instates their engagement and the Chorus comment with the anthem-like ‘In Foreign Fields’.
INTERVAL (15 minutes)
Act 3 opens in a WW1 trench in France. It is June 30th 1916. A bugler sounds reveille. The men are joking and encourage Dakin (now a Sergeant) to sing ‘No one cares less than I’ (Edward Thomas). The sounds of shell-fire grow louder and louder. Christopher (now Captain) Talland approaches and gives them their orders, but he seems ill at ease. Dakin calls the roll. They are issued with rum: there will be action. The men are nervous: writing letters home (actual letters from the archives of the Royal Sussex Regiment), smoking and joking. A bugle call gives the signal for the men to go ‘over the top’ to the sound of machine gun fire. Most fall. But one man does not go over the top: Captain Christopher Talland.
There is chaos. On the other side of the trench a man is injured. A senior British officer orders Capt Talland to fetch him. Christopher says his legs have gone to jelly. The female chorus punctuate this with ‘War will find you out’. The officer is about to shoot Christopher for insubordination when there is a massive explosion – the officer is blown up. Chris is severely dazed . . . ‘Am I dead?’. He sings ‘Violets of Plug Street Wood’ (Roland Leighton) . . . a badly injured man calls from the other side of the trench: it is Dakin. Chris hates blood, freezes and hallucinates with images of Helen and Col Rokeby. Helen recalls their engagement. But although Christopher has exchanges with Dakin who is screaming in pain, his nerve fails him. He cannot save Dakin. After another loud explosion Dakin lies motionless. Another officer dismisses Christopher and orders him to faces a court martial in England. The roll is called again with names as earlier. Nearly all are missing. The scene changes to England: the women, including Mrs Dakin, read the last letters from their men and from officers. These men will not be returning.
Act 4 is set back at the Rokeby family home in 1916. Margaret and Stephen are sitting in the garden. We realise that Stephen is blind: he may regain his sight in one eye. Margaret asks Stephen to make sense of it all. He replies ‘Only war will win’, which later becomes a refrain. Helen sings of waiting for Christopher. Col. Rokeby bursts in with news that Christopher is coming home. Word spreads and the women celebrate the news (‘Fragments of Joy’), but when Christopher appears he is dishevelled and disorientated. He sings disjointed excerpts of ‘The sunshine on the long white road’ a haunting poem by Roland Leighton.They gradually realise that he is not himself. He produces a letter which Col. Rokeby reads, giving the news that he faces a court martial for cowardice. Everyone except Helen turns against Christopher and in the midst of this Col. Rokeby reveals that he himself has never actually fought a war. War
has found him out too.
Christopher is unhinged: he proclaims he is a traitor and the Village taunts him. Only Helen stands in their way. She recognizes that her unquestioning militarism has destroyed the man she loves. Stephen has taken no part and now makes clear why. He has lost his faith. Each character in turn considers the effect of war on themselves and joins Stephen in the refrain that ‘Only war will win’. War has shattered their time honoured certainties and all lives have been changed. The female Chorus sing of their lost men-folk. Margaret decides to serve at the front as a nurse. Helen will look after Christopher. In the face of life changing events, everyone must make their own choice.
As the scene changes to the War Memorial of the Prologue,the roll of the names who died in WW1 is read again, this time against the anthem from Act 2 ‘In Foreign Fields’and the lyrics invite us to consider the effect of war and make our own choices