We hear of exit strategies and Prime Minister’s vows that our troops will leave Afghanistan by 2015, but where is the journey’s end as the bodies continue to pile up?
When David Grindley’s production played the Grand Opera House in York in April 2005, the shadow of the Iraq war fell heavily across RC Sherriff’s claustrophobic account of life in the First World War trenches.
Plus ça change. For Iraq, read Afghanistan and the Great War, conflicts each burdened by disquiet at the futility of war and the needless waste of lives in pursuit of an increasingly blurred cause (now being mirrored by the shifting goals of the NATO “exercise” in Libya).
Written in the shell-shocked aftermath of so much cannon fodder falling on the fields of France, Sherriff’s anti-war play from 1928 draws on his own experiences as an officer to try to make sense of it all.
Sherriff’s voice is carried by Captain Dennis Stanhope (North Yorkshire actor James Norton), war-weary and whisky-soaked at 21, and now confronted by the fresh face of his public-school past, when a callow officer, 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh (Graham Butler) joins his platoon at St Quentin in March, 1918. So evocatively captured in Jonathan Fensom’s cramped, dark design that compresses the stage like a boot pressing down on a chest, Stanhope’s rat-infested, claustrophobic trench dugout is 50 yards behind the front line. Time creeps by while soldiers await the big German attack, requiring the shattered young captain to inspire his men to make the ultimate sacrifice for a war he no longer understands and for a cause he no longer remembers. Plus ça change again.
Jason Taylor’s lighting barely picks out the faces of the officers as they cope – or struggle – with the wait (for the journey’s end). Norton’s dutiful but numbed Stanhope drinks “to forget”, having lost everyone who joined up with him at 18; Simon Harrison’s Hibbert battles with fear; Dominic Mafham’s stoical Osborne has a “nice glow” in his pipe; Christian Patterson’s jaunty Trotter forever hopes for better food; Tony Turner’s Private Mason, the laconic “cook”, is as hangdog as Tony Hancock.
The play ticks by slowly, inexorably, enveloping you in its fateful grip, its depiction of humanity in extremis leavened by shards of bluff humour in Grindley’s taut, devastating production.
At the finale, sound designer Gregory Clarke blasts you with a crescendo of deafening shellfire that rips through the auditorium, until the curtain falls. Then silence, broken by bird song and The Last Post, the men now standing motionless in front of a war memorial to the fallen.
It is a humbling feeling, and one of anger too that still we don’t learn the lessons of history, not only by taking up arms again and again but also in the disintegration of camaraderie and pulling together.
Journey’s End, Leeds Grand Theatre, until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm, today and Saturday. Box office: 0844 848 2705.