As part of Wales’s commemoration of the First World War, and almost exactly two years ahead of the centenary of the battle, National Theatre Wales has ‘staged’ a version of the fierce struggle for possession of Mametz Wood. This battle was fought over six days in July 1916 between largely Welsh volunteer soldiers and highly professional, well-prepared German troops.
Why Mametz? Because this was the defining battle of the Great War, at least in the memory of the century since, for soldiers from Wales and their families. It was a brutal and costly conflict. 600 men from the 38th (Welsh) Regiment lost their lives, and the total number of casualties exceeded 4,000. The originators of the NTW project, Owen Sheers and Chris Morris, claim Mametz as one of those ‘operative forces’ or ‘ideas that walk’ that the historian Gwyn A. Williams insisted cause people to remember and to take action years after.
Why ‘staged’? Because like all of NTW’s productions ‘Mametz’ happens not within a theatre but in a space in the ‘real’ world, in this case in and around Great Llancayo Upper Wood, just north of Usk.
It’s an inspired choice of location. As we stand waiting to begin it’s not hard to imagine we’re in the cornfields of Picardy, with the dark wood in front of us. From the start distant booms and crumps suggest shelling at the front. Two soldiers, messengers, run full pelt through the crops. We’re led towards a milking shed, where in a makeshift estaminet French girls entertain the raw, newly arrived troops. A tour leader from ‘Cooks Battlefield Tours’ explains to us the historical and geographical context before we’re led along a ‘trench’ to a large barn nearby.
Inside the barn, on our right is the facade of a French farmhouse, ahead the trench at the front line, faced with corrugated iron. Over the trench we can see the field outside, and beyond it the sinister, quiet wood.
We’re first introduced to Antoinette, a girl brought up on the farm to love the peace and seclusion of the Wood; for her the War brings not just disruption and invasion but a new life of prostitution and loss. Then we meet some of the Welsh and London Welsh soldiers, including the two ‘narrators’ or commentators on the unfolding events, and their loved ones back in ‘Blighty’.
Mametz Wood became famous for the remarkable number of artists and writers who found themselves in and around the battle. Wisely, the writer, Owen Sheers, largely ignores the most famous of them, Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, neither of whom were direct participants, and instead draws heavily on two writers who were, Llewelyn Wyn Griffith and David Jones. Their works complement each other well. Up to Mametz (1931) is a sober but highly sensitive account of Griffith’s experiences as a staff office attached to those commanding the Welsh forces. In parenthesis, a prose/poem published in 1937 by the artist/writer David Jones, presents an episodic, patchwork narrative, mixing colloquial and the mythological styles, seen from the viewpoint of a private soldier at the front.
In the trench we see David Jones, the absurdly young soldier of 1916 (Rhys Isaac-Jones, who plays him, bears an uncanny likeness to Jones), and two versions of Wyn Griffith: the young staff officer and the much older memoirist, a part superbly played by Michael Elwyn. He carries two supermarket bags throughout, a direct link with our contemporary world.
Another commentator, not directly connected with the battle, appears from time to time. He’s Willem de Sitter, a follower of Albert Einstein, the publication of whose general theory of relativity in 1915 was to revolutionise theoretical physics. This figure allows Sheers to question on our behalf the traditional attribution of events like Mametz Wood to the safely-disposed-of past, to emphasise the cold mechanical truths of the killing by describing the physics of ballistics, and to contrast the international and collaborative nature of the advancement of knowledge (de Sitter is trying to convey Einstein’s discoveries to Arthur Eddington in Cambridge) with the chauvinism of war.
An initial, entirely unsuccessful battle – the lighting and sound effects are already frightening enough – leaves many of their comrades dead, and our soldiers suffer days of anxiety not knowing whether they’ll be ordered to attack the German lines again. They write letters home. What’s the point of just saying hello, asks one; ‘perhaps they’re not saying hello’ is the reply.
Finally the order comes to attack. The men know what they’re likely to face. A whistle blows, they climb ladders and go over the top. A central section of the trench wall is removed to reveal steps, and we, the audience, follow. We’ve changed from being battlefield tourists to fellow-soldiers. Now we’re in a field, taped in crossed parallel lines, to direct us to the wood ahead and maybe to suggest the enfilading machine gun fire. As we walk on a line of women faces us. They hold placards demanding we do our duty and make our sacrifice.
As we enter the wood, on either side of the path we see figures in scattered tableaux summarising the soldiers’ memories (passing a rugby ball) and their fate in the final battle (blood-soaked poets). And then the last, climactic scene, in a glade in the wood, now shelled by artillery from both sides and fought over in hand-to-hand fighting. Almost all our friends from the trench are killed, and are joined by their women, now grieving and angry – accusatory in a new way. They die in agonies of synchronised, dance-like gestures (and later return briefly to life to speak of their fates). David Jones survives, wounded in a leg, and crawls to safety, abandoning by an oak tree the rifle he had been trained to guard with his life. The words Sheers has chosen from In parenthesis help give a scene of crude carnage and raw grief an elegiac coda: the famous passage in which the Queen of the Woods (Antoinette here) places different flowers on the bodies of the fallen, British and German. Snatches of Bach’s B Minor Mass float through the leaves. And then it’s finished. Birdsong resumes in the wood, and the last light of day is fading. We leave the logs we’ve been sitting on and file back in near silence out of the wood and down the field.
The silence is telling. Sitting in the wood we’ve been confronted with the worst that war can offer: pain, death, inconsolable grief and more (including the incompetence of those in charge of the battle). The facts are shocking enough, but the skill and emotion with which the whole NTW team – writer, actors, director and designers – transform facts into feeling makes for an intense experience if you’re watching and listening.
Only a few elements of the production fail to convince. In the first scene, in the shed, the device of the Cook’s tour guide adds an unwanted Brechtian note: it should have been possible to find a less awkward way of giving us the necessary background to the battle. And the Einstein theme, though suggestive, seems tacked on, linked to the main story by (approximate) chronological coincidence, and too theoretical; it distracts from the narrative and dissipates the tension.
This is a developing production – we went on the second night, and there’d been considerable changes from the first – but an impressive one. The performances are consistently strong – a great deal is asked of the main actors – and the direction tight. Lighting and sound, so important to the overwhelming effect the theme called for, are imaginative. And Owen Sheers’s script knits the chosen texts with his own dialogue is a way that’s both natural and poetic.
If the object of events marking 100 years since the First World War is to remember, feel and learn about the horror and error of war, rather than, as some would have us do, celebrating just causes and unthinking heroism, then Mametz has already staked a claim to be one of the most effective and moving of the events so far. If the battle of Mametz Wood is really an ‘operative force’, this production will have done much to amplify it. It deserves to be seen.