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Journey’s End at the Comedy Theatre, London

It is hard to imagine anyone writing a play like Journey’s End today — and for good reason. R. C. Sherriff, the author, had seen active service in the First World War (he was a captain in the East Surrey Regiment), and the play was finished in 1928, only a decade after the events depicted in it took place. Set near St. Quentin, in an earwig-infested dugout only fifty yards behind the front line, Journey’s End explores the relationships between a small group of officers in the hours before a major German offensive in March 1918. Who did Sherriff write for? Presumably, an audience not unlike himself — people who had seen war at first hand, people whose closest friends and relatives had fought, people whose nearest and dearest might well have been wounded or killed only a short time before. In the first production, the cast wore borrowed uniforms — or in some cases, their own. Sherriff was writing for an intensely war-literate audience. So for anyone directing Journey’s End, then, one of the hardest things to do is to try to recapture this immediacy — to rescue the play from death by demotion to ‘period piece’ — to try, for a couple of hours, to lift us out of our own prejudices, misunderstandings and anachronistic assumptions. It is greatly to the credit of David Grindley that he manages to do just that.

Remarkably, all things considered, Grindley has opted for an immaculately straight, understated production. It works. At the visual level, Journey’s End has a sort of olive-drab lack of flashiness about it — one grimy-looking set, little variation in the costumes, an all-male cast. So it’s important that everything, in a monochrome sort of way, be absolutely perfect. Well, it is. The set is a magnificent marriage between scrupulous realism and the technical needs of the play. The sound effects reserve their power until the moment is right to make a real, unforgettable impact. And the actors, without exception, deliver excellent, sympathetic, complicated performances. In a play where the tone veers vertiginously between the blackly humorous and the bleakly tragic, their characters come across as real, three-dimensional, more emotionally complex than the play itself will ever reveal.

Possibly this matters most in the case of Stanhope (Geoffrey Streatfeild), the fulcrum on whom the rest of the narrative turns. Stanhope, a young captain, came out straight from his public school to experience three unbroken years of active service. The attractively slim plot (borrowed, so a fellow ERO contributor of great erudition reminds me, for the 1970s film Aces High) revolves around the arrival in Stanhope’s company of the very boyish Raleigh (Christian Coulson). Raleigh was three years below Stanhope at school. He looks up to Stanhope as a hero — and Stanhope, we discover, has what used to be called ‘an understanding’ with Raleigh’s pretty sister. But we also discover, within the first few minutes of this beautifully-constructed play, something about what the war has done to Stanhope. As former schoolmaster ‘Uncle’ Osborne (David Haig) makes clear, although Stanhope still inspires in his officers and men a devotion not unlike that which he inspired amongst his fellow schoolboys, he in now famed amongst his fellow officers for his heavy drinking, his recklessness and his ruined nerves. What will Raleigh make of his idol once they come face to face?

In other words, from the moment he steps onto the stage, Stanhope is labouring under the burden of expectations — ours, as much as those of his fellow characters. It can’t be an easy part to play. Stanhope has, after all, to straddle a variety of contradictions. He has to be charming as well as infuriating, charismatic as well as visibly wrecked — a wise and kind patriarch as well as a bad-tempered, selfish, self-pitying alcoholic. Amidst all of this, he has to project the sort of rich inner life that slowly shifts the play from being a play about the impact Stanhope has on others to the impact that everything has had on Stanhope. And although there are moments when Streatfeild probably errs on the side of twenty-first century emotional explicitness — was all that weeping in the actual script? — all in all, his Stanhope is a convincing, compelling one. He is not only believable, but also ensures that the other characters’ feelings about him are credible, too.

When I wrote above that the plot was slender, by the way, I don’t mean that as a criticism. Journey’s End is, in that sense, very like real life — amid a tangle of sub-plots, not all very conclusive, the main plot is perhaps only discernable in retrospect. Meanwhile, one is faced with the various characters, their quirks and problems and priorities. David Blair’s ‘Uncle’ Osborne is marvelously self-contained, his maturity throwing into sharp relief the youth of some of his brother officers. His love — there isn’t really any other words for it — for Stanhope seems sometimes almost maternal. We discover Stanhope’s vulnerability as much through Osborne’s bemused affection as through anything Stanhope does himself. By the same token, Christian Coulson’s fresh-faced, likeable Raleigh, who at first looked naïve and almost pitiable in his enthusiasm for Stanhope, turns out to be to be more right than we thought. Stanhope does turn out to have heroic qualities, all the more real for the fact that his bravery hides very real weakness, doubt and terror. These are particularly apparent in his scenes with lieutenant Hibbert (Ben Meyjes), who has faked neuralgia in the hope of being sent home. Here we see Stanhope’s unique blend of rancour, craziness and charm all in action together — but also what Stanhope might have become had he not had the need, despite all his failings, to pull himself together for the sake of his men.

But then it’s a major leitmotiv of Journey’s End that we never really know very much about the people around us — what makes them tick, their fears or their hopes, their strategies for dealing with a less-than-perfect world. While we are invited to think a lot about Stanhope’s mental state, one of the stunning things about Journey’s End — and Grindley’s direction of it — is the delicacy with which we are reminded, here and there, of the complex emotional lives of the most apparently stolid, reliable figures. Trotter (Paul Bradley — best known as Nigel of EastEnders fame) is superficially the jolly Cockney chappie, dreaming of Margate and carrying a snapshot of his prize hollyhock in his wallet, but in a deeply understated way he scores a direct hit towards the end of the play, when Stanhope thoughtlessly reflects that for Trotter, everything is always the same — in short, that he is not emotionally complex and interesting in the way that Stanhope, Hibbert and others are. ‘You think that, do you?’ says Trotter, in a rebuke so mild that is almost lost in the onrush of events and conversation — and so telling that it remains one of the most powerful moments of the production. Trotter has made a chart with a circle for every hour the company is due to spend, up at the front, and fills in the hours, one by one. Osborne reads nonsense verse and somehow hangs on to being a schoolmaster even when he is second in command. Hibbert looks at pornographic postcards. Stanhope drinks. Raleigh will need to develop his own strategy for surviving. ‘Best think of war as romantic,’ says Osborne, encouragingly, very early on, just after Raleigh has expressed a belief that war is very romantic and heroic. We all have our own ways of coping.

In 2004 it seems remarkable, somehow, that anyone could stage a production of Journey’s End without infusing it with all sorts of embarrassing present-day preoccupations totally alien to the actual text of the play. For instance, it has become the stuff of conventional ‘wisdom’ that the First World War was all about pompous public school boys — those famous ‘donkeys’ — callously throwing hundreds of thousands of working class heroes to their deaths. Similarly, it is generally assumed that if brothers in arms feel remotely fond of each other, this can only be the result of latent homosexuality, held in check by old-fashioned and regrettable social taboos. So while considering all the things that this production of Journey’s End might have been but is not, it is worth noting — to take the easier case first — the elegance with which the play both addresses the closeness of the relationships that develop under such circumstances, whilst avoiding the sort of reductive impulses that would have imputed to, say, Osborne’s gentleness as he tucks a dead-drunk Stanhope into his bunk, or Raleigh’s innocent adoration for his hero, a coarse brand of literalism absent from Sherriff’s play but all too real in our time. Although no woman ever appears on stage, it is obvious that women — whether as whores, sisters, wives or fiancées — are, like the war, are always somehow present but just out of the sight — acting as catalyst, inspiration or refuge. At the same time, the depth and complexity of male relationships expands to suit the demands of their environment. One doesn’t have to read too many wartime memoirs to get a sense that Sherriff is telling an important truth here. Relationships hardened under fire seem to have a unique intensity. Ultimately, these men do not want to let each other down, or to be seen to be cowards in front of each other. This is one of the things that forces them to be brave, even when they do not want to be.

By the same token, the ordinary soldiers, although rarely present on stage, are somehow central to the five main characters’ motivations. From the first few lines of the play we are made aware of the importance, for the five officers, of behaving correctly in front of the men — much more important, it appears, than behaving properly in front of senior officers. This is a delicate business, full of difficult grey areas. Raleigh’s decision, late in the play, to share dinner with the men leads to a corrosively vicious, painful argument with Stanhope. Raleigh obviously feels flattered that the men wanted him to do this — Stanhope feels equally certain that the last thing the men want is some officer hanging about with them, spying on their activities and preying on their scarce rations. But at the same time, Stanhope argues furiously with his colonel, trying to avoid making a raid that seems certain to end in pointless loss of life — both for the officers and men involved. Scared sick by fighting, he doses himself with whiskey in order to summon up the courage to go above ground — but then stays up there for hours, and refuses the leave he is due. His attitude is, in short, a complicated blend of benign authoritarianism and the overwhelming need to do the absolute best by the men who are serving under him. If there is any hint of class-based arrogance here, in other words, there is also a powerful sense of responsibility, respect and obligation. There is no point in giving away the ending of Journey’s End. Suffice to say that anyone who has spent much time looking at memorials to the dead of the Great War will have realised that heroic self-sacrifice was entirely compatible with titles, ancient names and public school sporting achievement. If we are more squeamish about admitting this than our grandparents were, that says more about our own limitations and prejudices than it does about theirs.

Two enlisted men rise above the status of walk-on characters. Mason (Phil Cornwell) is the cook, dishing up repulsive onion-flavoured tea, anonymous ‘cutlet’ and a generous dash of seriously funny bleak humour, all delivered in a dead-pan manner, with a mixture of deference and extreme familiarity that probably owes something to Blackadder’s Baldrick but also reminded me irresistably of most of the college and club servants I’ve ever encountered. His distress at having to tell the temperamental Stanhope that he has ended up acquiring a tin of hated apricots instead of the more desirable pineapple is both funny and rather sweet, while his unblinking acceptance of the idea that he should come in from an all-out German assault at 9 am sharp so as to light the stove to produce the officers’ tea, delivers yet another of the great but understated triumphs of this remarkable production. Finally, as the sergeant major, Guy Williams radiates stolid dependability. Seeing him note down Stanhope’s orders for the day of the German offensive — basically, wiring the company in with no plans for what the sergeant major tactfully refuses to call ‘retreat’ — we can see exactly why Stanhope trusts, respects and cares for his men as much as he does. This is the sort of businesslike, can-do attitude that Stanhope so desperately wishes he had himself. But instead, he goes through five bottles of whisky in three days, and can only ‘sleep’ when he is so drunk that he can no longer sit up straight. Whatever Journey’s End says about class, it at least has the merit of not being remotely simple.

I imagine that most people who watch Journey’s End leave with the certainty that what they have been watching is an anti-war play. Largely, I suspect, they think this because they have been brought up in an age where any stance other than being ‘anti-war’ is seen less as eccentric than actually evil. And it is true that the picture of war that Sherriff provides is full of ugliness, destruction and loss. No ‘realistic’ play on this topic could have had a cheery, feel-good ending — and the conclusion of Journey’s End, while dignified and unforgettable, is also deeply, painfully sad. It is not just that war kills people — it does violence to them in other ways, too, so that Stanhope, for instance, absolutely hates the fact that Raleigh has come anywhere near its grinding destructiveness. By the same token, the German are shown to be decent people who just happen to be the enemy — as capable of chivalry and human kindness as anyone wearing a British Army uniform. As a woman, one certainly emerges from Journey’s End devoutly glad that one’s husband, brothers and friends have never been forced to experience anything like that. There’s an extent to which any convincing depiction of war necessarily entails what might be considered anti-war assertions. Sherriff had been there. He knew what he was writing about.

Despite that, however, I’d argue that Journey’s End is by no means an anti-war play. For those of us who grew up in the long shadow of ‘bad’ wars, with or without the additional irritant of mass conscription — for those of us nurtured on a steady diet of Seigfried Sasson as mediated through the teaching strategies of former 1960s flower-children and Grosvenor Square plackard-wavers — for those of us dependent for our knowledge of war on films, television documentaries and the conscious or unconscious biases of the liberal media — the bad aspects of war are all too clear. What we miss, of course, is the other side of war. If we experience this at all, it is likely to be at second-hand — through military memoirs, through the well-documented desire of servicemen everywhere (especially those who have seen active service before) to receive frontline postings, or perhaps through the conversation of men who have actually served in conflict situations. This was perhaps made most clear to me a few years ago when I happened to be sitting amidst three Falklands veterans and one wannabe-soldier journalist, and was left wondering at the speed with which they went from regretting the death in combat of colleague to their shared certainty that those were, in some ways, the best days of their lives. None of them would have missed it for the world. This, I think, is what civilians don’t always get — that war, as well as being terrible and brutal, can also be exciting, engaging, even inspiring. The friendships made under those circumstances aren’t like other friendships. The things you learn about yourself under fire, and the opportunities to prove yourself, aren’t like those offered in ordinary life — and after it all, ordinary life may come to seem notably flat, boring and unsatisfactory.

So for all the schoolteachers’ propaganda about how the Great War was a relentless machine, chewing up human life to no discernable end — and ensuring as it did so that ‘no one ever felt the same way about war again’, as we are always being told — it seems entirely possible that the Great War had its good moments, too. During Journey’s End I was reminded of Basil Liddell Hart’s words of 1916, quoted in Alex Danchev’s immensely entertaining biography of this military theorist whose own personal experience of battle included being wounded at the Somme:

War, at least modern war, as waged on the Western Front, is horrible and ghastly beyond all imagination of the civilian. Nevertheless is has an awe-inspiring grandeur all its own, and it ennobles and brings out the highest in a man’s character such as no other thing could. Could one but remove the horrible suffering and mutilation it would be the finest purifier of nations ever known. Even as it is, it is the finest forge of character and manliness ever invented, when taken in small doses. The unfortunate thing is, that this war [the Great War] has become an overdose. Still, with all its faults and horrors, it is above all a man’s life, in the fullest and deepest sense of the term.

Liddell Hart, like Stanhope, was not a ‘natural’ soldier. He had to struggle to live up to the ideals — ‘romantic’ ideals, if you like — which his background had instilled in him regarding the way in which a decent officer ought to behave under fire. He had, like Stanhope, a lively and painful awareness of his own lack of physical courage, which in a way makes these words all the more remarkable. They are, however, by no means unique. And they reflect, I think, something of the tone of Journey’s End, however uncomfortable and alien most of us may find them today. Ultimately, there is nothing simple, obvious or reductive about this brilliant, compelling play — neither simple adulation nor simple cynicism. And that, I suppose, tells us a sort of truth, not only about war but about that bigger question, more central to this play than even the issue of war itself — how is it possible to be a good man in a bad world? — if only we can summon up the courage to hear it.

Journey’s End is running at London’s Comedy Theatre until 1st May 2004. Tickets cost between £15 and £37.50.

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