First World War centenary marked at the Festival of Chichester

Never Such Innocence: Christopher Kent
Never Such Innocence: Christopher Kent

A poignant evening at this year’s Festival of Chichester will mark the centenary of the end of the First World War.

Never Such Innocence will be offered by actor Christopher Kent and pianist Gamal Khamis on Tuesday, July 3 at 7.30pm in the Oxmarket Gallery, St Andrew’s Court, off East Street – a narrative recital of words and music from the First World War.

The night will include poetry, music and the real-life story of Private Percy O’Key, Christopher’s own great uncle.

“The whole thing started really because I had recorded an audio book of war poetry a few years ago,” Christopher said. “I was asked to do a recital in 2016 as part of the Somme 100 commemoration. I thought it would be much more interesting if there was music as well. I happened to know Gamal and we started having an email correspondence backwards and forwards. There is a lot of music that is not really thought of as being World War One, things like Debussy and Ravel and from the English composers, Elgar. I would say to Gamal ‘Have you got something that would go with this poem, that would have the right feeling?’

“And we would pick up on that, and we realised that what we were actually doing was creating a narrative that would be a progression from the feeling people had at the beginning when there was a lot of jubilation, a feeling that they were going off to do something great to there gradually being more and more pain and loss and sorrow.

“One of the first things that Gamal sent me was a piano transcription of Nimrod from the Enigma Variations, just played on the piano, and it sounded so beautiful. I immediately knew what the end of the show should be.

“There was also a lot of contemplative stuff, and we realised that we couldn’t just have 90 minutes of contemplation. I had a feeling that a lot of Wilfred Owen poetry was actually quite angry, and so we needed music that was angry. We ended up with a bit of Schoenberg.”

Adding poignancy to the whole thing is the tale of Percy: “I had been given a box of correspondence by an elderly aunt. She left it to me in her will, these letters and also official documents. Percy was a young lad, joined up at 19, a private soldier in the East Yorks regiment who was killed in August 1918.

“I did know about him. My mother, when she started to get dementia, was talking about him. She had never known him, but my grandmother had spoken about him a lot. I took my mother to see his grave, just as her mind was starting to go, and it was very moving. That was some years ago.

“When I read through the correspondence, there were pieces that I wanted to include in the piece. You have got the finely-wrought writing by people like Owen and Sassoon and you have got these very simple letters. It forms a good contrast.

“The letters are very simply written. He was very kind. He asks a lot about people at home. He was just an ordinary young man just hoping that he would go back to the life he had before.

“They are not emotional letters. He spent a lot of time saying he couldn’t think of what to say, but he also says he would like to be with them at the seaside.

“And he occasionally says he wishes the whole thing was over.”

Tickets £12; students/unwaged £8; includes glass of wine. Disabled access.

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