It’s been a while since I went to a play at the Richmond Theatre. My last one was Pride and Prejudice in Autumn 2009. It really was quite awful. I walked out halfway. Not sure whether this had any bearing on my not attending any plays there for quite some time. Maybe I felt a little bit put off and just didn’t make any effort.
This year’s selection of plays from the Richmond Theatre have been quite interesting. One of them was Journey’s End. In the days leading up to the last German offensive, a 18 year old teenager called Raleigh (pronounced ‘Raw-ling’), just graduated from school joins a company of soldiers. He particularly wants to join the company led by his old school senior friend, Captain Stanhope (pronounced ‘Stan-Up’). (This’ll give you insight into the words I’ve not been pronouncing correctly, or poshly.) Stanhope had visited his family in the past, and was friendly with Raleigh’s sister. Raleigh, being young and naive, is a real contrast to the other soldiers, who are seasoned. Each deals with war and fear in their own way. Stanhope through drinking, Trotter through food, and Hibbert through the physical manifestations of neuralgia. Though all feel this fear, they at the same time look down at Hibbert’s symptoms of neuralgia as self-inflicted as hopes of being taken away from the front, as cowardice. Hibbert is constantly told to ‘buck up’ and ‘be a man’. Stanhope is different from when he was in school, and doesn’t want Raleigh there as he’ll write home about how much he’s different now as a result of the war. A key character, an older headmaster, is Stanhope’s good friend and stabilising force. He’s courageous in his quiet way and gives strength to the others. All these contrasting themes are dealt with in the face of certain death.
The play does an excellent job in recreating the tension and atmosphere of being in the trenches. The script was well written, peppered with ironic, understated, self-effacing lines. ‘Such a nuisance this war.’ Listening to the conversation of officers in their bunker, you still do get a sense that these were a privileged lot. Well, for one the posh accent gives it away. But the discussion of all the family connection, as do the decision on the lives of others lesser than them.
The acting, to say the least, was excellent. As a member of the audience, I really felt like I was a fly on the wall in the very trenches. The surround sound and the associated vibrations added to the atmosphere of the play, as did the silence in some parts. Lighting and set design was great.
Decisions are made by superior officers (also read privileged men from the upper classes) like pieces on a chess board. There seemed to be a disconnect with the chess pieces on the map of the front, and the lives of the men who execute their orders. There seems to be a disconnect with the reality of sending troops in when the enemy is prepared and expecting them. That these were suicide missions seemed lost on the senior officers tucked away somewhere safe a far distance away. Just run very fast.
The timing of the raid is like a party event on a calendar for Raleigh who is dreaming of a Military Cross, an execution for Osborne. They have their strong coffee with rum and a smoke before their 5 pm raid. Osborne senses he may not coming back and so places his few possessions on the table to be sent to his wife.
The commanding officer was elated when one of the last raids captured a Gerry and totally forgets to ask about the men who executed the raid. Instead, they talk about the officers deserving the champagne they’ll have and their roast chicken dinner. Stanhope reminds the commanding officer that not all men from the raiding party are back, to which he replies and (insensitively) asks whether they are all back safely. ‘Did you expect them all to come back alive?’ Stanhope asks incredulously.
Osborne doesn’t make it, as did 6 other nameless soldiers. Raleigh returns but is significantly scarred. His view is changed and his view of Stanhope is changed. He looks down at Stanhope for drinking champagne and eating his roast chicken dinner, and there is a row between them.
The play reminds me very much about the war poet, Wilfred Owen, a soldier who died just the week before armistice. He wrote about the fear, about malingering, about the shelling and the sheer futility of war, all themes conveyed by this play. The ending was rather poignant, with the cast receiving their ovation against a backdrop of a memorial wall with the names of soldiers who died in WWI listed. None of the characters survive the final offensive. It brought a tear to my eye.