A CurtainUp London
To The Green Fields Beyond
I'm not a religious man --Kirkpatrick
Neither am I . . .but when life becomes this ugly, there must be something equal of beauty hiding within -- Child
Fresh from winning an Oscar with his first film, American Beauty, Sam Mendes, Artistic Director of London's fashionable Donmar Warehouse for the last eight years, is back in the theatre. He was to have directed a play by William Shakespeare, until To The Green Fields Beyond by a little known playwright, Nick Whitby, crossed his desk. With this outstanding production of that play, Mendes deserves his directorial reputation.
Whitby's harrowing play set during the First World War challenges and stays with you.
Until 1939 that war was called The War To End All Wars.
At school I was taught by unmarried women who were part of a generation who had lost their men during that 1914-18 conflict and I often wonder, such was the carnage of young men, how many authors, poets, artists, composers we lost, novels never written, paintings never painted, music never composed. Plays like RC Sherriff's Journey's End evoke the atmosphere of life in the trenches but in To The Green Fields Beyond Whitby has gone further. True at one level his play looks at men waiting to die and the horrors of war but it is also a metaphysical study of the members of the Tank Corps.
Some back ground on the Tank Corps - for which I have the author's programme notes to thank. These men had been recruited from all parts of the British Empire from those with experience of motor engineering or driving. They were the future, technologists, engineers. There was a belief that if the tank was correctly used, the machine could shorten the war and bring the slaughter to an end. September 1916 on the Somme saw the first use of tanks. Thirty one of the forty nine machines broke down before reaching the battle. In 1917 the tanks contributed amazingly, both in saving infantry lives and on the psychology of both sides. But by 1918, the Germans had developed armour-piercing bullets and artillery that made the tanks with a top speed of three miles an hour and their crew extremely vulnerable. Each tank would be operated by a crew of eight men.
Whitby's play lets us see how each of these men contributed to the machine. The device he uses to expand our knowledge of his characters is the introduction into this tight knit group of an American reporter and a Belgian prostitute.
The play is set in September 1918, the night before a battle. The men are waiting in the woods. They are apprehensive that this will be their last battle Although they are of different ages and backgrounds they are a team: Ain (Ray Winstone), a Cockney, was a chauffeur in civilian life (" . . .where I come from, that's next to a fucking bishop!"). . . Lion (Nitin Ganatra) is a Sikh; he's obedient, loyal and resigned to doing his duty and reads William Blake's poetry to relax. . . Venus played by the very talented Finbar Lynch, is an Irish gunner who articulates what every one else is thinking and dare not say. . . Dice (Danny Sapani) is a West Indian, a compassionate black man and accepted by this group of soldiers. . . Cossum (Adrian Scarborough) the corporal is a fixer, good at his job but suprisingly na´ve about sex. . .the Scotsman and philosopher Child (Dougray Scott) is the officer. . . Mo (Hugh Dancy) who wants to be a teacher and another more streetwise young man, Duff (Danny Babington), round out the team.
Into the group comes the reporter, Kirkpatrick (Paul Venables), a voyeur and dishonest about why he is there. Essentially he is muck raking although he protests that he is there to tell their story. Johanna Lonsky plays the prostitute. She speaks little English but the moments of communication with these soldiers are poignant.
I was totally involved with this group of men and their dilemma - whether to go to certain death or to contrive a mechanical breakdown so that they would not reach the front. Whitby's play is a powerful polemic against war and more. When the men describe their duties with the tank and rehearse for the advance it is as though they are the tank ("We are eight bits of a machine"). Even taking drugs does not deal with the fear of death and the unknown, the green fields they hope are beyond death. The men wear brown, red and green badges - the spoken significance is through the mud, the blood to the green fields beyond. Child tries to make sense of the destruction, to predict how the war will be interpreted, who will take the blame? Much of Whitby's dialogue is realistic and uses army slang of the day. However you will get the gist and the text has a glossary of unusual words, all of which adds to the authenticity.
Anthony Ward's set beautifully evokes the forest with its tall silver birches, glistening bark, lanterns hanging, khaki knapsacks and a fire. The subdued lighting too is just right -- as is everything about this production.
|TO THE GREEN FIELDS BEYOND
Written by Nick Whitby
Directed by Sam Mendes
With: Dougray Scott, Adrian Scarborough, Hugh Dancy, Danny Babington, Ray Winstone, Nitin Ganatra, Finbar Lynch, Paul Venables, Johanna Lonsky, Danny Sapani, Gary Powell
Design: Anthony Ward
Lighting Design: Howard Harrison
Sound Design: John Leonard for Aura
Composer: Stephen Warbeck
Running time: Two hours with no interval
Box Office: 020 7240 4882
Booking to 25th November 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 25th October 2000 performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street London WC2