Anna Victoria Simmonds
Simon Darren Jeffery
Mrs Morrell Sarah Redgwick
Siegfried Sassoon Bradley Travis
Jack Sam Furness
Davey James Way
Leo Sacha Smith, William Saint
Chloe Maia Greaves, Katya Harlan
Jack (age one) Imogen Whelan, Finlay Hawkins
Conductor Douglas Boyd
Director Karen Gillingham
Designer Rhiannon Newman Brown
Gasington Opera Orchestra, student instrumentalists and Foley artists
Garsington Opera Adult, Military, Youth and Primary Companies
Outside the family's home on the housing estate. A pub/bar across the street
Prologue: Simon and Anna are outside their new home, in love, holding their baby, Jack. Simon has planted a silver birch tree to grow up alongside the child. Their neighbours warn them that nothing can grow in this soil.
Transition: 19 years pass. Anna and Simon have three more children: Davey, Leo and Chloe. The marriage breaks down after Simon loses his job. The silver birch grows tall and strong. Simon, who was once in the army - but wasn't tough enough - buries his cap under the tree.
19 years later: The youngsters play football. Simon challenges Jack for "moping" over poetry (by Siegfried Sassoon). Jack, who works packing parcels, is cheif breadwinner for the family. Simon tells Jack he's useless. Anna protests; she and Simon quarrel. Davey, by contrast, can do no wrong in his father's eyes. Jack declares he will prove himself by joining the army. Anna and the neighbours try fruitlessly to dissuade him.
Jack loves the war poems of Siegfried Sassoon. In his imagination he meets his former teacher, Mrs Morrell, who introduced him to poetry, and Sassoon himself - who at first was nicknamed Mad Jack for his daring in World War I. They sing Sassoon's 'The Humbled Heart'. Jack imagines stepping into Sassoon's place.
Jack is about to leave for the army recruitment centre when Davey declares he's joining up too. Jack is horrified: how can he look after his brother in the army? Many local teenagers all want to experience the adventure the army seems to offer. The smaller children are envious. The adults warn there is no reset button on life. Chloe tells Jack that every night she'll send a kiss to the moon for him to download with the password 'Silver Birch'. Everyone encourages the youngsters as they leave - except for Simon, who thinks they have lost their minds.
Transition: The young soldiers experince tough training.
An army base in a hot, war-torn place, some months later. Jack writes to Anna, but won't tell her entirely how hellish the war is. The soldiers peel their boots off their swollen feet after a long day. Post arrives from home: their lifeline. Jack receives a package from Simon, but it's really for Davey, who's in another base. By starlight, Jack runs across the desert, thinking of Chloe at home. He places the parcel by the sleeping Davey and leaves without waking him.
At home: The school playground. The children sing 'O Soldier, Soldier, Won't You Marry Me?' Leo has found Jack's Siegfried Sassoon book. The children ask him to read something. He reads out the Declaration Against the War, aided by Siegfried's spirit. The children grab the book, taunting him about his brothers at war. Leo lashes out. A fight starts. Mrs Morrell, the head teacher, intervenes. Simon becomes aggressive on finding Leo in trouble; Anna pleads that the boy's wolrd has been turned inside out. Mrs Morrell longs to help them, but has to suspend Leo from school. They sing from Sassoon's 'Glory of Women.'
On the battlefield. The soldiers experience chaos and terror. In the heat of battle, Jack is startled to find Davey is among his company's reinforcements. Davey is injured by an enemy gunman. Jack chases the gunman and kills him at close range. Then he helps Davey to safety, saving his life.
Scene as Part 1.
The soldiers are home: there's a parade and a street party. Siegfried and Mrs Morrell observe them. Davey is in the parade. Jack arrives late - traumatised by war, haunted by the image of the man he killed to save Davey. Leo and Chloe notice how much he has changed. The silver birch has been lopped.
Simon and the neighbours celebrate the soldiers' return, playing a drinking game of 'forfeits'. When Jack refuses to join in, Simon orders him to drink three litres of cider, then - even though Jack has gone through the hell of war - taunts him about not being tough enough. Jack can take no more and is about to assault his father. Davey restrains him. They and their fellow soldiers are trapped in a nightmare, reliving their experiences. Anna intervenes, telling Jack to rely on the strength of her love; after all he has been through, he can't fall now that he is back.
Jack converses with Siegfried, asking why he returned to war despite having spoken out against it. Siegfried says he had to help his men: he belonged with those whose suffering he shared. Jack struggles with himself, reflecting on the troubles returning soldiers face, seeking escape through running away, drugs, violince, jail. He has proved his strength at war; can he be strong enough to win his peace?
The neighbours turn on Simon, whose lack of support for Jack is responsible for all of this. Simon recognises he has failed his son. Revealing his own ill-fated time in the army, acknowledging he was a hopeless father, he begs forgiveness. Jack says he can't undo it all now. Anna encourages Jack to stay with them.
But Davey and Jack together decide they must help their 'brothers' traumatised by war. They must live with their experiences - but they have learned their own strength and now it's up to them to make the best of their lives. Sassoon's 'Everyone Sang' blends with the Silver Birch song. Spring will return...but the singing will never be done. The emotional impact of war is the same in the 21st century as it was in World War I.