I have just had the privilege to experience Lee Menzies’ production (in association with Jeremy Meadows, Suzanne Rosenthal and the Shaftesbury Theatre) of R. C. Sherriff’s deeply moving and poignant play: Journey’s End.
Sherriff’s play was first performed in 1928, just ten years on from when the drama is set, with a twenty-one year old Laurence Olivier playing Captain Stanhope. This production began its tour in February 2011 and Director David Grindley’s powerful production is moving, funny and devastatingly heartbreaking.
Journey’s End is set in the trenches at Saint-Quentin and the entire story takes place in the officers’ dugout over four days. It opens quietly on Monday, 18th March 1918. Second Lieutenant Raleigh arrives, a very young officer who requested to be with this particular company as he hero-worshipped the company commander, Captain Stanhope at their public school and still does.
The humour lies mainly with Private Mason, the cook who does his best with the rations he is given. When asked what kind of soup he is serving he replies: “yellow soup, Sir.” Mason never seems to sleep as he always has the task of waking each officer in time for his watch.
One poignant conversation between Stanhope and Lieutenant Osborne (who everyone calls Uncle) is when they discuss Lieutenant Trotter’s lack of imagination and they imagine worms on the other side of the dug-out walls, wondering if they know which way is up and working their way through the earth around tree roots and….. There is a heavy silence and we think about the soldiers’ bodies lying in the earth beyond the walls of the dugout.
Osborne and Raleigh are sent on a raid with ten chosen men. Osborne removes his wedding ring and leaves it on the table saying he doesn’t want to lose it. The tension whilst the two men wait for eight minutes before leaving is painful. Sadly Osborne doesn’t make it back, "but at least the Brigadier is happy,” Stanhope remarks when the Colonel congratulates the company on the raid and sends Champagne and cigars.
In the final scene, the German attack on the British front-line approaches and the theatre is filled with the sound of shellfire. Raleigh is injured by a shell which has broken his back and he can’t walk. Stanhope orders that he be brought back into the dugout to await the stretcher bearers. Raleigh tells Stanhope that he’ll be all right in a while; he had a similar injury when he was playing rugby, “but it went off after a while.” Raleigh tells Stanhope he is cold and it is getting dark and he wants a light. Stanhope moves the candle to his bedside and goes to find another blanket. Raleigh cries desperately, then falls silent and his arm drops down. Stanhope returns with the blanket, but, of course, it is too late, Raleigh has died. He covers Raleigh and shells continue to explode. The Sergeant-Major rushes into the dugout and tells Stanhope that Lt. Trotter says he is to come. Stanhope doesn’t go straightaway and the Sgt Major shouts that he is needed now. He puts on his tin helmet, pauses on the steps and looks back into the dugout. He then runs up the steps and the bombardment grows louder. Osbourne said at the very beginning that Stanhope was the best commander the company had ever had. He didn’t have to leave the dugout, but he did. And that’s what all the front-line soldiers did in the Great War, they heroically went into battle knowing they probably would be killed.
A black curtain slowly descends and the audience is left in the dark with the ear-splitting sound of shells exploding and bombs hitting the trench. The intensity of the bombardment laid bare that no-one would have survived.
Then silence followed by The Last Post. When the curtain was raised the cast stood in a rigid line and behind them the backdrop was like so many memorial faces, Thiepval, Menin Gate, Tyne Cot, a list of names – the missing.
I have never felt so emotionally drained after a visit to the theatre.
Everyone involved in this production is to be congratulated, especially the superb cast who portrayed Sherriff’s drama so brilliantly.
"They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."
© Karen Ette