‘A Shropshire Lad’, AE Housman’s collection of 63 poems, was first published in 1896, but its depiction of a longed-for rural idyll, and a generation of young men lost to war, struck a chord with readers most pointedly as the events of World War One became known.
It is said that many a soldier in the trenches carried a copy of Housman’s poetry with them as they waited.
Niall Ashdown has set these poems to music and through these songs created a story that takes a community – and in particular its young men – from a rural fairground in spring through a wintry no man’s land and on to a saddening return to their much-changed home.
The song-and-story structure serves two purposes: it delivers a powerful narrative; and it provides a framework in which many other elements can be placed.
And these elements will depend very much upon the community that is putting on the show.
Each production would take place in a large indoor space somewhere within a local community. This might be a church, a village hall, a theatre, a school hall, or even within a specifically constructed space such as a marquee.
Here the story of ‘A Shropshire Lad’ would be told through song, movement and dance, and through various staging devices: this can include shadow puppetry, animation, film projection, lighting and sound.
While the songs and the story they tell provide a framework for the piece, there are also opportunities for local stories to be told, true tales, tales that are pertinent to the very place in which the show is set.
These might be tales of mothers, sisters, cousins saying goodbye to loved ones as they go off to war (and not just the Great War).
They might be facts garnered and researched by schoolchildren or youth groups which relate details about the men who went off to war, and their lives, professions and aspirations at the time.
There may be representatives from local regiments whose archives detail the contributions made by local people to the war effort.
It may include soldiers’ letters home, and genuine anecdotes from people within the community who knew ancestors who went to war.
In other words, each community that tackles this piece will be presenting it in different ways according to their specific histories.
The intention would be to enrol as many local people as possible to mount a production. This would mean liaison with many local groups; regiments, schools, choirs, musicians, drama groups, workmen, film-makers, senior citizens…
All can make a contribution to the show.
A Shropshire Lad both mourns and celebrates the passing of young people who “will never grow old” and this show hopes to be true to those sentiments and to how they are expressed by a particular community in their own setting.