Tonight, MESH Theatre Company opens its first production at the Kruitmagazijn in this all-important year to commemorate the fallen in a way only live theatre can do.
MESH produces theatre of war, taking acts of remembrance to historic war zones. We are at a place where history speaks, giving voice to drama, poetry and prose from the mouths and pens of men and women who have experienced war at first hand, in all its complexity; to hear those voices and ask questions about our own history-in-the-making.
When we visit battlefield zones such as this, we are of course stopped in our tracks by the scale of losses: row upon row upon row of headstones, names on memorials, image after image of monochrome faces we almost know, stories of every kind preserved so that we can remember. The vastness of the immaculately-catalogued provision is humbling – and deafening in its silence.
In breathing ‘life’ into this arena, otherwise frozen in time, we open a window directly into our ancestors’ lived experience: here before our eyes are Sherriff ‘s trench mates suffering a war that was tedious, ugly, terrifying, funny, cruel and criminally wasteful. It is no accident that live theatre has a strong, subversive history in illuminating the political through the personal.
Both my grandfathers fought in the First World War. My maternal grandfather Stanley John Draper left Australia to join up in 1914, age 18 years old, and fought the duration of the war, first at Gallipoli then in France. He was shot twice, gassed and suffered recurrent bouts of pneumonia (in the days before antibiotics) but was sent back to the trenches from hospitals in Cairo and Bournemouth. He suffered from weak lungs and dark moods for the rest of his life. I’m told he never liked children much - apart from me, who came along late in his life. My few memories of him are of a kind, humorous old man with whom I could chat away for hours. I am gratified if I was, unwittingly, a late ray of sunshine in his life blighted from such a young age by unimaginable horror. I am also beyond grateful to him for what he suffered in the name of ‘duty’ for the benefit of a conceptual future generation. Not that he had much choice.
My paternal grandfather, Herbert George Ronaldson, a 34-year-old Irishman in South Africa, joined the Allies in 1917 in Tanganyka (now Tanzania). He fought the Germans face-to-face in the African bush, suffered malaria and dysentery, weighing in at under 44kg (7 stone) when invalided home. A chain-smoker, he died young of mouth cancer. It was in the painstaking work of transcribing his war diary, a tiny volume densely-scribed in fading pencil in heart-breaking detail, that first stirred in me a call to action. Such rich, first-hand accounts gather dust in many a family’s private belongings, not to mention archival treasure troves such as the RC Sherriff Trust for those who happened to become famous. There are so many untold stories here – and where there are stories there must be theatre.
So MESH was born: an acronym of my four grandparents names, my two grandmothers holding their own as silent witnesses to a war-torn generation. In the year of Passchendaele, it was a very easy choice for our inaugural production to be Journey’s End, a play I’ve long admired.
So, less than a year ago, I found myself on a ferry bound for Calais, armed with no more than a layman’s understanding of WW1 (GCSE History, Birdsong, Blackadder…) and a steely determination to bring Journey’s End to the Battlefields – and now. A crash course in Remembrance tourism later and we had a venue, a licence to perform and the widespread support of the Ieper / Ypres community whose open-minded generosity has never failed to amazing us.
Special thanks to the RC Sherriff Trust for enabling us to do this play and to In Flanders Field Museum for letting us use this iconic building.
We will remember them.