One of the key justifications for so many of the past four years’ commemorative events, marking the centenary of the First World War, has been that today’s younger generations must not be allowed to forget both the tremendous amount of suffering, and numbers of lives lost in that harrowing conflict. This would seem an uphill task when barely any of us will have known anyone who lived through that war, or indeed many who served in the Second. It is, therefore, all the more impressive to see millennials not merely engaging with acts of commemoration this seminal weekend, but leading and enacting them.
The commemorative potency of Cosmic Arts’ production of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End this weekend at St Mary Mag’s church is unquestionable. The play follows the officers of one British company of soldiers over the course of four days in 1918 while positioned on the front line of the Western Front at St. Quentin.
Performed in a church, this production invites the audience’s faith and trust that the massive loss of life in the Great War was of some ultimate worth and that those who fought and died deserve not only our respect and honour but our gratitude. The action of all three acts remains within one trench dugout, serving as an officers’ mess. With the stage positioned at the east end of the church, the central dining table evokes both an altar and the tomb of the unknown soldier, adorned with candles as if for a commemorative vigil.
Theatre can serve as a potent instrument for commemoration, but the latter, emphasising the historicity of its subject, will always be in some tension with the immediacy on which the force of most naturalistic drama depends. In her programme notes, director Agnes Pethers acknowledges the consequent fine line between “remembrance” and “vivid realism”, but her production does not consistently manage to tread it.
Partly, this is a result of the unavoidable restrictions of amateur theatre. The impressive costumes, presumably hired, were notably unsoiled, suggesting more readily that the cast were preparing to embark on parade, not coming to the end of a gruelling winter amidst the notorious mud of Flanders. More substantively, the production gives only a limited sense of the daily, hourly horrors of life in the trenches. Flinn Andreae gives a strong performance as the terrified officer, Hibbert, who feigns neuralgia in the hope of being sent “down the line” for medical attention. However, having been compelled to remain with his company and see out a major German offensive, his reluctance then to engage in what history now remembers as the Battle of St. Quentin is presented as the result more of teenage obstreperousness than of mortal terror.
Perhaps a reason for this rosy depiction of morale in the trenches is Pethers’s stated aim of presenting the soldiers as romantics, “who fought, and died for a belief, for love in its many forms, for us now.” Most of the cast share a tendency to stare out and upwards as if in wide-eyed rapture when recounting what is most dear to them – whether this be their home, their sweetheart, or their garden. Whilst there can be no doubt that millions of soldiers in World War One were spurred on by love of country and family, to play this up so pointedly risks presenting their heroism as an insincere, assumed pose.
It may also be this romanticisation that has led this production to an under-appreciation of the importance of humour and role-playing as strategies by which soldiers tried to lighten their otherwise unremitting gloom and anxiety. Dialogue about onion-flavoured cups of tea and the proportion of lean to fat in the supplied bacon are played in this production at face-value as banal, mundane conversation.
Greater consciousness of the context of perpetual fear and discomfort would, I feel, have revealed these exchanges as the superhuman efforts of men, standing on the brink of hell, to try and block out the reality of their situation with gallows humour and some attempt at play-acting a reassuring domestic, normality. Nevertheless, moments of such quasi-tongue-in-cheek roleplay as when the company officer drunkenly asks his second-in-command to tuck him up in bed and kiss him goodnight are still pulled off with stomach-churning pathos.
Cutting through the slight hints of sentimentalisation, two central performances stand out in the production for their particular sensitivity. Joe Woodman as the new arrival, Raleiegh, initially takes as much delight in the prospect of a raid behind enemy lines as he does at the thought of playing ‘rugger’ for England. Yet, with devastating credibility, he then depicts Raleigh’s utter deflation and disaffection after the avuncular Osborne is killed in action, movingly revealing the inability of public school notions of honour and sportsmanship to withstand the sheer, indiscriminate brutality of trench warfare.
The second is by Albert McIntosh in the leading role of the Company Officer, Captain Stanhope, whom Raleigh has known and idolised since childhood. McIntosh brings a compelling ferocity to the part and shows how the ravages of war have transformed and embittered him. With his aquiline features and patrician delivery, McIntosh conjures a flavour of Olivier, who famously created the role of Stanhope in 1928. However, amidst the snarling and barking, there was little sign of Stanhope’s fundamental humanity and decency, for which Raleigh first so admired him and for which the men in his company still hold him in such high regard.
Whilst disagreement may still rage about whether the First World War was necessary, just, or served any beneficial purpose, there can be no dispute that many millions of combatants displayed extraordinary heroism during the course of the war, not only through courage and valour but in the compassion and selfless devotion to their fellow soldiers. Sherriff’s Stanhope stands high amongst literary depictions of just such characteristically modern war heroes – flawed, anguished but human.
Although greater volume and projection would benefit audience members sitting further back, this show boasts a strong ensemble cast. Joe Stanton and Louis Cunningham both do exceedingly well with parts intended for older (and rounder!) actors, the former imbuing ‘Uncle’ Osborne with both wisdom and kindness, the latter injecting some much-needed moments of light-relief in his portrayal of the salt-of-the-earth Trotter.
Audience members already familiar with Journey’s End may be disappointed that this production does not attempt to conclude the play with the technical coup-de-theatre, envisaged in the script. However, the coda to this performance, unique to this student production in Oxford, is more than sufficient compensation.
One would have struggled to find a more affecting or powerful commemoration of the centenary of the 1918 armistice in Oxford last weekend.