fri 14/06/2024

Folk, Hampstead Downstairs review - thoughtful play about folklorist Cecil Sharp | reviews, news & interviews

Folk, Hampstead Downstairs review - thoughtful play about folklorist Cecil Sharp

Folk, Hampstead Downstairs review - thoughtful play about folklorist Cecil Sharp

Nell Leyshon's play-with-music asks questions of a legacy

Sharp practice: Simon Robson and Mariam Haque in 'Folk'Robert Day

Cecil Sharp, heritage hero or imperialist appropriator? If you attended school in the first half of the 20th century, you would have sung from his collections of English folk songs, and probably gritted your teeth and performed the country dances he recorded, too.

Not far from the Hampstead Theatre, where Nell Leyshon’s play about him, Folk, has premiered in the Downstairs studio space, there is a world-renowned centre named for him and dedicated to the English folk traditions he helped salvage.

Or did he? Sharp’s legacy has divided academic opinion since the 1980s, attracting complaints that he was a racist (he collected Appalachian songs but none from people of colour), a sexist who ignored the output of certain groups of women, and a bourgeois who turned “folk art” into a whitewashed form that ignored the social deprivation of its performers. Leyshon wisely doesn’t target all of Sharp’s activities; his relationship with a real-life young English singer, Louie Hooper (Mariam Haque), provides her with enough material for a thoughtful play that finds its own way to skewer him. Mariam Haque and Sasha Frost in 'Folk'Directed by Roxana Silbert, who runs the Hampstead, this is a studio-space piece with big ambitions. Its title, for a start, has a double resonance: as a term for the ethos of a whole nation, or as a description of its untutored art, often referred to as “naive”. Leyshon puts the two into a standoff. Which is the more important? Louie is in no doubt. Her recently deceased mother was her lodestar and the source of all she values in life, namely her songs. 

It’s 1903 in the Levels, a low-lying, boggy part of south Somerset, where Louie and her sister Lucy (Sasha Frost, pictured above with Haque) are glovers, working by candlelight from their crude, uncarpeted home; nearby is a new glove-making factory that threatens to put them both in the poorhouse. So Louie reluctantly becomes a maid at the vicarage to supplement their income, and there she meets a visiting teacher and music researcher, Cecil Sharp (Simon Robson), who is immediately intent on setting down her songs.

The Pygmalionesque nature of this relationship is often comic. The unworldly, illiterate Louie is abrupt and blunt, though clearly sharp-witted and instinctively musical; Sharp is brisk and flowery but kindly, messianic about collecting the nation’s songs. But his mission, Leyshon suggests, is not so much scholarly as a form of cultural imperialism, driven by his desire for England to have a pure, patriotic musical identity again — the last great English composer, he tells Louie, was Henry Purcell. In her songs he finds the true sights and sounds of the nation, full of flowers, “an oak tree in a field”. As Leyshon notes in the programme, Sharp, whatever his shortcomings, tirelessly collected more than 4,000 songs. 

But the crux of her play’s argument is nevertheless an aesthetic one. This isn’t a straightforward tale of a heritage thankfully preserved before the machines destroyed the lives of the labouring singers who gave birth to it. Sharp has no recording devices and only sets down lyrics and accompanying melodies. Then he subjects them to his own compositional skills, “arranging” them and writing a piano accompaniment. Listening to the made-over versions, Louie is confused: they don’t sound like her mother’s songs. No, he says, they aren’t her mother’s, they belong to the nation and have to be presented in a form this wider public finds acceptable. In a breathtaking sequence, Louie makes him go through his arrangement of “As I walked through the meadows” (one of nine Sharp-collected songs in the play), painting the scene she imagines before singing each section, in the way her mother taught her to do, and showing him exactly what his prettified version lacks. 

Haque is stunning in this section, her voice soulful and dark, with just enough of the edge we have come to regard as “authentic” from the recordings that were eventually made of songs like Louie’s. It’s a standout performance all round that makes the others seem from a different theatrical planet, unfortunately, but well worth seeing in itself. The production’s musical content (musical arranger, Gary Yershon; sound design by Tingyong Dong) is particularly strong throughout. 

All in all, watching Folk is an agreeable experience, but by the end you hanker for more grit, to have seen something wilder and darker, like the tones of Haque’s voice.


I think you mean " the first half of the 20th century"

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