By the end of crusading epic Enduring Song, which comes in at a little under three hours, you could accuse its creators, Bear Trap Theatre Company, of a range of things – but certainly not a lack of ambition. Set in 1096, writer/director Jesse Briton tells the story of a group of boys who have grown up together in Avignon and never left its boundaries until Bishop Peter comes recruiting for the crusades. As they set off for the holy wars, the action flits between the boys’ ordeals and the people they have left behind.
It’s been nearly four years since Bear Trap won plaudits at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival with their first show, Bound, the tale of a group of trawlermen from Devon, told with only a handful of chairs and close-harmony shanties. It’s been a long absence, and Enduring Song almost feels like a reaction against their first success: Bound was understated where Enduring Song is overblown and intimate where this show is just vast. You have to appreciate the scale of what they’re trying to do, but in spite of the years of development that have gone in, Enduring Song feels messy and utterly unwieldy.
You get a sense that in both writing and directing, although he did the same for Bound, Briton has bitten off more than he can chew here; the result is tonally uneven both in writing and performance. It feels like there’s simply too much for Briton to keep an eye on and you inevitably lose a sense of the minutiae, the real, with characters trading clichés and seeming to have dropped in from completely different genres, especially where the female characters are concerned. The dual realms of feminine home-making and masculine war-making are presumably supposed to contrast, but actually they just completely clash, and the frequent set-changing from short scene to short scene makes it difficult to get any kind of handle on the play’s emotional life.
There’s almost certainly something interesting at the heart of Enduring Song. The loss of innocence in the face of war is a timeless concept; the journey of the four boys and the disintegration of their friendships could be moving. This is especially true in the case of the two leads, Matthew (Tom Roe, doing his best with a rather blandly heroic part) and Georges (Daniel Foxsmith, hugely likeable and even believable throughout, in spite of a few missteps in the writing) – but their friendship, in spite of being the show’s heart, is underwritten, as Briton tries to juggle a blindly optimistic number of characters and themes.
Simply put, he tries to do so much that this muddled show actually does very little and leaves you with more question than answers. Why this time? Why the crusades? An interesting period in history, certainly, but it doesn’t feel like Briton has much to say about it beyond sort of pointing it out. The company have a little bit of fun with the setting, most notably some beautiful period singing, but it’s hard to enjoy properly when it feels like cheating – using music to elicit an emotional response from the audience not earned by the show itself. A couple of shoddy costumes and bits of anachronistic dialogue add to the occasional odd sense that somebody has staged an episode of BBC Merlin.
All told, it’s an exhausting two hours and forty minutes; to say the script could do with a trim is an understatement. By the end, you feel you have been hit over the head with a barrage of ideas, a patchwork quilt of different styles that never comes together into a cohesive whole.