Classic World War I drama Journey’s End set for King’s Theatre
Director David Grindley on massive success of his recent revival of the play
Yasmin Sulaiman visits the French locations that inspired RC Sherriff’s classic World War I drama Journey’s End and talks to director David Grindley’s about the massive success of his recent revival of the play
There’s a tunnel on the Canadian National Memorial site at Vimy Ridge in northern France that tries to give you an insight into the conditions soldiers would have gone through during World War I. Our tour group, a mixed bag of journalists and PRs, is jostling for view of the runner’s room, a small enclosure cluttered with dirty wooden furniture covered in chicken wire. It’s a damp, depressing sight that’s been singled out as the inspiration for the set of one of the most successful British theatre productions of the last decade: David Grindley’s 2004 revival of Journey’s End by RC Sherriff, a poignant World War I drama. Having enjoyed an 18-month run in London and a Tony-award winning Broadway stint in 2007, it’s now embarking on a lengthy tour across the UK.
We’re recreating the 2003 journey taken by director Grindley and designer Jonathan Fensom when they were planning the production. This in turn follows part of the likely route taken by the soldiers in Sherriff’s 1928 play before they reach the trenches at Saint-Quentin, where the action is set. And although we also visit the British memorial at Loos and the French cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette, Vimy Ridge seems to have played the biggest role in shaping the production. ‘Being in the underground tunnel was an absolute moment of clarity for us,’ Grindley tells me a month later, before the show is due to reach Edinburgh. ‘We knew that’s how we should convey the feeling of claustrophobia and give it a much more visceral edge than we would have done otherwise.’
Throughout the tour and afterwards, Grindley is keen to emphasise that Journey’s End is not an ‘anti-war’ play and that Sheriff – who, aged 19, volunteered for service in 1915 and was wounded at Passchendaele – wrote it as a commemoration to the men with whom he served in battle. But it also seems likely that the show’s success since 2004 is partly owed to public reaction in the UK and US against mounting military death tolls, first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan.
‘I think it plays into public awareness about our current wars,’ Grindley agrees, ‘but I feel the success of the play is due to the fact that the characters were citizen soldiers – Kitchener’s Army, ordinary men, who found themselves in the middle of war. Why the show works so well is that people see real men enduring extraordinary circumstances. And, as I’ve always said, it’s a play about hero worship for which the backdrop is the war.’
This hero worship comes in the form of Raleigh, the 18-year-old lieutenant who asks to be sent to the company of 21-year-old Captain Stanhope, whom he looked up to at school, only to find that the experience of war has made his idol an alcoholic. For Grindley, the relationship between the two characters is the linchpin of the play’s dynamic and he has great faith in his cast’s ability to tackle this. ‘The young actors we have in this production really bring the narrative to life,’ he enthuses. ‘The great thing about this show is that the actors are very committed to doing it – however many people are in the audience, they always deliver a very high standard performance.’
Sherriff’s aptitude for dramatic timing also plays a significant role. ‘You’re always aware of the ticking clock that at any moment this world is going to end,’ Grindley explains, ‘because the enormous German attack is about to begin. It’s wrong to say there’s a “thriller” aspect to the play but there is something about it that ensures that the audience’s pulses are racing by the end.’ It’s this dramatic awareness that fuelled Sherriff’s subsequent Hollywood career, during which time he penned scripts for Goodbye Mr Chips and The Dam Busters.
Even though it’s been seven years since his production came to life, Grindley still speaks passionately about Sherriff’s play. And, buoyed by a high-calibre cast, he’s keen to sustain the momentum behind the show for some time yet. ‘2014 will be the centenary of the start of World War I, the 85th anniversary of Sherriff’s original production and indeed the tenth anniversary of my own production,’ he says, ‘so it’s definitely a milestone to aim for.’
Journey’s End, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Tue 15–Sat 19 Mar.