In R.C. Sherriff’s war drama Journey’s End the men wait in trenches about 70 yards behind the enemy line with only a modest dugout for respite between their shifts. They are caught in limbo, but they carry on as best they can, knowing the waiting will ultimately end in battle and possibly death. The British director David Grindley has crafted a beautifully paced experiential retelling of the play that will haunt you for days, possibly even weeks, after you have seen it. Be warned this is not escapist theater, but a grim depiction of three days in these soldier’s lives as they prepare for the moment when the waiting will end.
Mr. Grindley directed a successful revival of the 1928 play in London about three years ago to much acclaim. He has recast that production with an American cast and brought it to Broadway with extraordinary results. The evening although carefully thought out has an immediacy that feels fresh and spontaneous and when viewed in the light of the Iraq war is a powerful testament to our young men’s courage. There is no way you can watch this meticulous staging without being reminded of our young soldiers who risk life and limb for our country. The director has painstakingly stacked the deck ever so slightly, however, to allow the evening to feel like an anti-war comment as well.
What is it like to go into battle? Ask a soldier and he probably won’t want to speak about it, but in Journey’s End Sherriff paints a vivid picture. The playwright was in the trenches at St Quentin during World War I and intended the bleak story based on his own experiences as a tribute to the bravery of the men, and the bonds of friendship, as well as an account of the horrors of war. The play holds up very well as an early naturalistic rendering of life in the trenches just before a battle that will wipe out the company. The characters are layered and as their underlying fears emerge, there are abrupt shifts in the action, but it is the superlative direction that takes the evening to another level.
The story set in 1918 chronicles three days as a group of officers and enlisted men are readying themselves for one of the most crucial confrontations of the war. In the first part of the play the men are seen entering and leaving the dugout going about the business of the day. They are keeping a stiff upper lip and displaying the requisite good spirits as they prepare for the day they will go “over the top.” The tale unfolds as the men interact with one another and we witness the crumbling of the façade of some of them and the staunch commitment of others. There is only the companionship of your fellow soldiers, the small talk, and the daily activities to keep the rambling thoughts of the mind at bay, and to distance you from the fear. As the action builds to its fierce conclusion we see the sacrifice required to keep it together.
The acting by the American ensemble with one Brit is superb. Hugh Dancy, the Brit making his Broadway debut, is outstanding as a stressed out young Captain Stanhope. Boyd Gaines as Lt. Osborne turns in a beautifully restrained sensitive performance that is most moving. Jefferson Mays as the down to earth pragmatic cook Private Mason is just perfect. Let me emphasize once again this is an ensemble and every member makes wonderful contributions connecting beautifully with each other. The actors are all living in the life of the play and their consummate work draws you in to the unfolding events.
The award worthy production elements supports that life richly. Jonathan Fensom has designed an appropriately claustrophobic dugout, and the dim lighting design by Jason Taylor which gives the feel of the bunker being lit by candle light that is only occasionally broken by streaming sunlight. The sound design by Gregory Clarke of the approaching troops is effectively disarming, but the harsh realities of the hostile enemy are truly found in the troubling silences.
The detailed production emphasizes these silences and the grim atmosphere, but the final 10 minutes are emotionally harrowing. They will be forever embedded in your memory as a searing image of war that will disturb you long after you have left the theater. Don’t miss this rare theatrical achievement that may very well be the best revived play of the season.
… by gordin & christiano
Originally Published on Hamptons.com
Journey’s End is now playing at the Belasco Theatre, 225 West 44th Street between Broadway & Sixth Ave. For tickets call 212-239-6200.