At its best, theatre has the power to transport an audience to a different time and a different place. This is precisely what MESH Theatre’s production of R.C Sherriff’s ‘Journey’s End’ achieves in an unflinching and powerful portrayal of life in the trenches.
In what other way could the history of the First World War be more vividly brought to life than by inviting an audience to sit in a bunker on the very grounds that the fighting took place, metres away from the actors, where they can witness every facial expression and every emotion?
Director of the production, Sally Woodcock, described how ‘audience after audience came out shaking as they couldn’t believe how close we’d taken them to the trials of the soldiers that lived a hundred years ago.’ A truly immersive experience that takes place in a dramatically intimate setting, the production takes the unimaginable scale of war and makes it relatable through an individual, human story that is beautifully told.
Journey’s End 2017 Tom Kay, Rory Fairbairn (Josh Macmillan)
As the only First World War play written by a First World War soldier, the story is a unique one. The men you see depicted are Sherriff’s trench mates and the play encompasses the gamut of human emotion shared between them. It resonates with its audience because it is a real story: the play is both funny and tragic, fast-paced and contemplative and is, in Woodcock’s view, ‘the most authentic piece of theatre there is about the First World War without a shadow of a doubt’.
We spoke with Sally Woodcock to find out more about what she set out to achieve with this production of ‘Journey’s End’ and its impact on our understanding of the First World War.
You said that your inspiration for the production came from a moment you were in a secondary school in an English lesson. What is it about this piece of theatre that has the power to educate young people?
When young people are taken to the battlefields of the First World War, or a history related trip, you often see them wandering around looking slightly glazed (looking at their phones, even!). What we ask of young people is a lot in terms of trying to grasp the reality of what they’re witnessing. When they are taken to the cemeteries and the Menin Gate memorial covered in thousands of names of people with no known graves, it’s just numbers. It’s baffling for anyone, really.
The power of live theatre, however, breathes life into a particular story and succeeds in demonstrating the universal so that young people can get to grips with the reality. The power of that, in terms of helping young people connect with the reality of the provision in the battlefields, is extraordinary and what we see is that they’re completely mesmerized. They come into the bunker theatre and they see actors almost close enough to touch. It’s so intimate; they are transfixed from start to finish. There’s certainly not a phone in sight!
Then when you step out of the theatre and go to visit a memorial, it’s fresh in your mind. It’s a powerful educational experience and we think it’s essential in complimenting those other experiences.
Why did you feel it was important to set the play on the very ground where the fighting happened?
Partly as a tribute. When you’re walking around Ypres, there are still remains under your very feet. 100 years later, they’re still finding the remains of soldiers. By setting the play in an actual bunker, it helps people to engage with the reality of what it was like to live in a trench. It’s a place, a time, a tribute. All those things come together, along with a good quality script and passionate actors, to create a powerful piece of theatre.
Journey’s End 2017 Cast Tom Kay, John Rayment, Alexander Tol (Steve Edwin Photography)
How do you think seeing the production will enhance a school group’s Battlefields tour?
They’ll never forget it. They may forget a memorial they’ve visited, or the name of a cemetery they went to but they will never forget sitting in a bunker seeing actors up close, crying, laughing; the scent of whisky, the authentic uniform… The attention to detail in terms of historical accuracy was bang on: every prop, every pack, every boot, every knife is authentically sourced and researched. They’re getting a proper slice of historical education as well as a powerful theatrical experience.
If they remember nothing else about their battlefields trip, they’ll remember this. The kind of response we have received so far has confirmed this.
(Steve Edwin Photography)
“Theatre at its most powerful … perfect complement to a visit to the Battlefields.”
“Utterly electrifying theatre, had me in tears. Go see it.”
“Captured the atmosphere, tensions, humour and tragedy of trench life brilliantly.”