2017 is the year to remember Passchendaele. It is also the year to remember Journey’s End.
I’m currently immersed in the humbling business of directing the play for its Centenary Homecoming at the old ammunition store (Kruitmagazijn) in Ypres this Autumn.
There is a Journey’s End film with an illustrious cast coming out around the same time.
This seminal piece of First World War literature has a pedigree which reveals itself daily as I peel back layers on this very literally muddy world. It’s author, RC Sherriff, is the only WW1 playwright also to have fought in the war 100 years ago at Passchendaele: “the battle of mud”.
He wrote it ten years later, comfortably back at his desk as an insurance clerk, saying, “I didn’t need to create these characters, they walked out on to the page.” They are his trench mates, and indeed himself, in the “worm” Hibbert crippled with nervous neuralgia (as Sherriff was), carping to his young Captain, Stanhope, war-worn alcoholic at just 21 years old.
As Telegraph critic Bill Darlington put it at the time, “Here are all soldiers in a few soldiers.”
Stanhope was first played by a young Laurence Olivier in London in 1927 in a subversive Sunday night showing at the Apollo theatre, deemed to be neither commercial enough nor cutting-edge enough for anything more significant. A stunned audience precipitated a word-of-mouth hit, culminating in a two year run in the West End and inspiring 30 productions in 18 different languages worldwide by the mid-1930s. Its simple story of a handful of soldiers in a dugout on the Frontline, anticipating a major attack broke a silence about the diabolical truths of trench warfare. The play was condemned and applauded in equal measure. “You have no idea what terrible offence Journey’s End has given — and terrible pain too, which is a great deal more important,” as critic Ralph Hodder-Williams put it.
Last week I had a preview of the replica battlefield in the grounds of Passchendaele Museum which was teeming with re-enactment rehearsals for the Centenary (soldiers in every uniform, constant din of gunfire, barbed wire, encampments everywhere). Standing alone beside me with his camera was a ‘German’ soldier. I greeted him – he spoke only German. With sign language and a smile I got the nod to take his photo. Then we both stood a moment, just the two of us, absorbing this half-acre expanse of crater holes and mangled wire: how the hell was a man to get from A to B on that? Let alone an injured man, fleeing for his life or trying to reach a brother-in-arms.
How the hell?
A little later I chatted with some re-enactment chaps, mostly English but in a variety of uniforms. The German was standing amongst them. We all examined the Journey’s End flyer, its iconic black-and-white image of the Royal Irish Rifles on the first day of the Somme, that one penetrating face staring down the lens. I greeted him again; one said: “He doesn’t speak English.” It didn’t seem to matter. In doing their proud Remembrance work together, in the name of "all soldiers" they were all having a tremendous time.
In excavating the truth of Sherriff’s ten men in a trench (including the quaking German Prisoner with his pocket full of homespun trivia) over three cataclysmic days in the last throes of this horrific war, my job is to address the personal, not the political – a job which live theatre can deliver like nothing else.
Sherriff counted himself hugely lucky to get his ‘Blighty’ after nine months on the Front with a relatively minor head injury, though he suffered from a degree of survivor’s guilt for the rest of his life. He was lucky. And so are we. He gave us these ghosts of “all soldiers” in Journey’s End.
Journey’s End (the play) * October 10 - November 12, 2017 * Kruitmagazijn, Esplanade 8900, YPRES (IEPER) Belgium * Daily at 1500 h (except Monday) & Tues / Thurs / Sat at 1900 h * www.meshtheatre.com/tickets