Journey’s End @ The Duke Of York’s
Having studied Journey’s End as a dramatic text a few moons ago, I sat in the auditorium with the preconception that I would have a great understanding of the production. Saying this, I sat for a few moments after the last notes of the bugle had faded away and the theatre began to empty, worrying if I had the linguistic capacity to write about such a fantastic and moving piece of theatre. It was not that I would have nothing to say; rather, would I be able to concisely express my feelings in just a few paragraphs? I was also anxious about paying true respects to both the live actors and the fallen men they eventually depicted. Without delving too far into sombre thoughts, the fact of the matter is that you must see Journey’s End before it leaves the West End.
Set in March 1918 – just before the last great German offensive of the First World War – Sherriff based the play on his own torturous experiences on the front line. Not intended to be an anti-war play, director David Grindley has respected this creating a world of ‘displacement activity’, the characters doing their utmost to avoid the cruel inhumanity of war. Incidentally, this echoes many realities since; the fiction blurring with the actuality of wars since. The cast of actors stand frozen during curtain calls, reflecting the war heroes that are immortalised in their courage and loyalty. Evidently, it was not the violent essence of war that was portrayed so deeply within Journey’s End but the silence of the deadly waiting game each soldier was playing before they faced the worst game of all.
The silence of the dugout ultimately reflected the painful clock-watching and it was perhaps what wasn’t spoken aloud that affected the audience most. The dialogue – littered with comic relief and “rightos!” – jumped between fraught emotions of anger, despair and hysteria. However the most distressing of all was newcomer Raleigh’s (Graham Butler) naivety and his consequently painful realisation that war was not a fantastically epic game of ‘rugger’, but very real and agonising. His awkward pauses reflect this awful truth of war as it is bluntly thrust at him by his school time hero Captain Stanhope (James Norton). Stanhope’s anger in the realisation of how the atrocities of war have affected him is heightened by the devastating ‘coincidence’ of Raleigh being assigned to his company.
Aside from the constant theme of battle, other elements are also woven in, such as camaraderie and distraction from the soldier’s very apparent surroundings. The audience’s perhaps unseeing gaze was drawn to the more prominent aspects of trench life that are often forgotten: the loneliness, the fear, the filth, and the battle within the soldier’s own minds. Never once does the audience see the battleground above. Both the operations of the attack and the scene are manifested within the dugout around a slow burning candle, as we watch the men’s lives burning shorter and shorter under strain and injury alike. As the final scene is blacked out, the audience is left with huge explosions and massive gunfire, only to imagine the horror that took place almost one hundred years ago in so many No Man’s Lands.