Cards on the table, I was absolutely stoked to review this piece. Occasionally there are plays that you grab onto out of pure love for the subject matter, or because it has relevance to your life. For me, it’s both. I grew up 10 miles away from where this play is set, and spent my childhood singing songs from 100 Folk Songs Volumes 1 and 2.
Cecil Sharp is often credited with reviving the popularity of folk music in England and for preserving an oral tradition that would have otherwise been lost to history. To this day, students taking singing exams to this day are compelled to sing a folk song in their repertoire. Nell Leyshon’s play depicts a loosely fictionalised version of Sharp’s time in Hambridge, South Somerset, where he collected many songs from local singers, then transcribed and published them in several volumes, to be taught in every school in the country.
The first half of Folk, I thoroughly enjoy. The writing is funny, swinging and confident in its humanity and even the section where Sharpe is teaching Louisa how a piano works is interesting and not (to me) patronising. I do make a joke to my friend that it feels like a Disney movie version of events – the ingénue and the teacher, two like-minded souls coming together by miraculous chance, who both love music so much they need to wrap themselves up in it.
Mariam Haque, who plays Louisa, is astounding. She’s an actress who seems almost unaware of herself, that’s how much she sinks into the character, and everyone else in the cast, whilst turning in strong performances, can never match up. Her voice is textured, passionate, and properly folky. Everyone holds their breath as she sings Lord Rendal, knelt on the floor as if in chapel. I wish I could bottle that moment. It shimmers through the whole production as the distilling of pure folk, the bar against which all other songs fall short. (You can hear a more enunciated, less magical version of Lord Rendal here)
Louisa reveres music more than anything in the world. When she sings, it’s with the love of her whole life and everyone she’s ever known. Her sister sings casually and flirtatiously, whilst dancing with the boy who collects the gloves. John the farmhand sings as a throwaway, a way to pass the time.
This play captures how it feels to sing and love singing. I think it does that really well. It brings the period to life and makes you love folk music and how songs lived in people.
But I don’t get on board with the way the play problematises the process of collection of songs. Not that it shouldn’t be problematised, it should! By all accounts, the real Cecil Sharp was a pretty horrific sexist and racist, to say the least, and he profited immensely from the songs he harvested from people all over the country.
But to place all the politics of the play – and the emotionally climactic monologue – on Louisa’s dismay at her mother’s songs being trimmed down and tidied feels a little reductive? There’s a narrative of appropriation which the real Louie evidently didn’t feel or articulate – there’s a note printed in the programme where she talks warmly about their time together.
It’s not nice as an audience to feel like you’ve been given the easy option and I can’t help but feel we’ve been fobbed off a little bit, given an emotional release that makes sense for narrative simplicity rather than any real political heft.
The real Cecil Sharp collected over 4000 songs over years from many different people, including Louisa’s sister Lucy, and I feel robbed of even a hint of the richness and complexity of that whole process, of a whole class, of a whole country and what it means for their art to be preserved, pickled, reshaped for an upper-class audience. For me, Folk soars in the first half but gently fades out to what feels like an ungenuine ending.
Folk is on at Hampstead Theatre till 5th February. More info here.