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Duffy’s Wit Meets Sampson’s Musical Mischief at Theatre Royal

2 May 17 words: Katie R. Chapman

Household name Carol Ann Duffy and court musician John Sampson come together in this blend of lyrical wit and musical madness. 

Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has become a staple of English classrooms across the country. For better or worse, thousands of millennials have interrogated a Duffy poem in the exam hall. As such, it is surprising that her work remains so popular across a range of generations.

It is this spread of generations that fills the foyer of the Theatre Royal dress circle for Nottingham Poetry Festival. Bright anthologies rest in the audience’s laps as Duffy and court musician John Sampson enter in black. Sombrely, Sampson begins with a rendition of ‘The Last Post’. In fact, the night is bookended by grief: beginning with war poetry and closing with a poem about Duffy’s late mother.

After the opening solemnity, the rest of the evening sparkles with wicked humour and mischief. As soon as Duffy finishes ‘The Christmas Truce’, accompanied by haunting carols from Sampson, the performance comes to life. We are taken on a tour through two of Duffy’s most successful collections, The World’s Wife and Rapture. Duffy has a demeanour perfectly suited to this intimate setting. Whilst her voice has an almost muted quality, as if played through an old radio, it rings with her trademark dry humour. Her performance of ‘Mrs Tiresias’ imagines the thoughts of a woman whose husband who has been turned female by the gods. Duffy both taunts and treats us with a deadly sense of comic timing. Similarly, ‘Mrs Faust’ delights with the wonderings of the wife to a man who gave up everything for power, money and smart bombs. As Duffy quips, it might easily be renamed ‘Mrs Trump’.

This twist-in-the-tale poetry is interspersed with Sampson’s ripe trumpeting and variety of musical tricks. At one point, he deftly blows two recorder-style instruments simultaneously, playing separate harmonies. He even offers to show us his crumhorn. Indeed.

Duffy turns then to Rapture, a love affair told over a series of poems. She allows us a precious glimpse into her creative choices, explaining how her one-word titles are the essential moment, the ‘grit in the oyster which forms the pearl’. From her lectern, she reads a string of poems from this collection, without breaks, eyes down as if in prayer. From ‘Text’ through to ‘Art’, her words crystallise the heart-breaking moments of being in love.

This emotional depth is juxtaposed by Sampson donning a Mozart wig for a rapid mash-up of the composer’s greatest hits. Sampson’s clearly talented fingers flutter through the melodies. His self-proclaimed ‘tory cuts’ rendition is followed by political poems from Duffy. She reads her stinging ripostes and admits ‘middle-aged fury’ as she slams the exam board who banned her poem for inciting knife crime. Her response poem, ‘Mrs Schofield’s GCSE’, wickedly brings together a variety of Shakespearean violence to drive the point home.

The night closes by returning to grief, with poems covering the public sorrow of the Hillsborough disaster to the private heartbreak of Duffy’s mother’s death. Her performance of ‘Premonitions’ is set against Sampson’s achingly beautiful ‘Danny Boy’. She imagines meeting her late mother in reverse, baring her wounds to this small audience with an openness that is truly heartbreaking.

What at first seems like an odd pairing, Duffy and Sampson turn out to be an excellent balance. Her subtle wit offsets his zany musical feats, creating an evening of artistic delight.

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