City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

The Extraordinary Life and Times of Rudyard Kipling, Brunton Theatre, Review


By Justine Blundell - Posted on 24 March 2015

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Venue: 
The Brunton
Performers: 
Robert Powell (storyteller), Philip Mountford (piano), Clive Conway (flute).
Running time: 
110mins

Robert Powell delivers a gentle evening’s entertainment recounting the life of writer and poet Rudyard Kipling, accompanied by live music of the period.

The stage at Brunton Theatre was set for a recital, with the requisite piano, a lectern and little else to draw the eye. This focused the attention on the content of the performance and the quality of the performers. With Philip Mountford on piano, Clive Conway playing the flute and classic actor Robert Powell telling the tale, the latter box was duly ticked – so what of the actual content?

Standing at the lectern, Powell began with what was almost an apology: recognising that Kipling belonged to an era of imperialism and empire that was subsequently viewed as problematic to say the least, he asserted that this has affected how – and the extent to which - Kipling has been remembered. No doubt he is right. What followed attempted to provide a sympathetic context through which to take a fresh look at his work, along with an implicit plea not to throw the baby out with the bath water – to forget or forgive the context, but remember the great writing nonetheless.

After an apparently idyllic early childhood in India, Kipling had been sent to England to begin his education. His parents left him, at the age of six, in the care of strangers who had been found through a newspaper advertisement. For the next 6 years he silently endured a period of routine beatings and ‘calculated torture’. It was during this time that he discovered that ‘words are the most powerful drug… and reading was the means of everything that would make me happy’. He mused later that perhaps, like Dickens, his early life of suffering had laid the foundation for his later writing.

Not talking about his private pain was a thread that ran throughout his life: he reputedly never spoke to anyone of his devastation over the deaths of his closest friend, his daughter at the age of six and his son who was killed in the Great War aged just 16 years old. Keeping the proverbial stiff upper lip resulted in duodenal ulcers that lay undiagnosed for many years, causing recurring illnesses and his eventual death. He did, however, have an apparently happy marriage, travelled extensively and with joy – and there was always the writing.

Powell recited a number of his poems – ‘If’ and ‘The Way Through The Woods’ among the most memorable, stirring and evocative. There were also humorous and playful excerpts from the Just So Stories that demonstrated his remarkable range. The interludes of early 20th century music added to the sense that we were being walked through a bygone era, tinged with nostalgia and a faint melancholic air.

Powell ended by making a significant point: that Kipling’s funeral was attended by politicians and the military – the establishment if you like – but that the intellectuals awkwardly stayed away: all too quickly scapegoated perhaps, because he represented different times and faded ideals. Now, nearly eighty years later, nothing much has changed.

England’s identity crisis is currently a very hot topic – the recent Scottish Referendum and the rise of UKIP south of the border has brought discussions of nationalism right to the fore. Unfortunately this pleasant but tame performance contributed little that will move this debate forward. The sad truth is that, until England finds a way to incorporate its past, warts and all, in the story of its future, the work of truly great writers, like Kipling, are threatening to be forever neglected, to the shame of us all.

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