Durham University Classical Theatre’s (DUCT) production of R. C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End (1928) plunges its audience directly into a dugout on the front line near Saint-Quentin, Aisne, in 1918, and is careful never to veer away from that most claustrophobic of atmospheres. In Captain Stanhope’s infantry company we are introduced to the Captain himself, alongside Osborne, a middle-aged former schoolteacher, Mason, the cook, and two other soldiers, Trotter and Hibbert. Soon Lieutenant Raleigh, an excitable young recruit, fresh out of school, enters the regiment. In his youthful innocence, he idolises Stanhope, having known him from his glory days in rugby and cricket at the same institution. And yet he will learn before long that Stanhope’s three uninterrupted years at the front line have hardened him into a shell of the man he once was; his hero-worship is met only with bitterness, resentment, and the stench of copious amounts of whisky.
Sheriff himself served for ten months on the front line before being forced to retire after an injury. A German shell exploded into a pillbox, and doctors apparently removed over 50 pieces of concrete from his flesh. His play has no pretensions to be a particularly intellectual or poetic work of art, but what it does possess in abundance is a tender, sincere, and profoundly human quality that works astoundingly well in the intimate City Theatre. Seating only 71 people at full capacity, the audience are absorbed right from the outset – deepened by the unity of place – into a life of misery and misfortune in the trenches.
What’s more, the sound effects are remarkably fitting, contrasting the eerie silence of the first half of the play, which amplified the impressionable Raleigh’s unrest, with the ceaseless, and ever louder, din of German bombardment as the time for the raid approached. When high-strung Raleigh, who expects the war to offer a rush of exciting opportunities to prove his patriotic worth, tells Osborne that the stillness unnerves him (‘How frightfully quiet it is’), we believe his naïve words, for we too are engrossed in this peculiar, wholly unsettling atmosphere.
As the programme notes emphasise, student theatre must always confront the inescapable discrepancy between the actors’ ages and those of the characters they intend to portray. In this production, however, with the exception of Osborne, “they are one and the same thing”. What this hammers home most strikingly, I would add, is just how young both Stanhope and Raleigh are. Harry Scholes’ naïve, enthusiastic Raleigh has only just finished secondary school and, despite his unerring adulation of Stanhope as the faultless idol on the sports’ pitch, we are painfully aware that this commander of men – who has aged beyond recognition from his days playing ‘rugger’ – can be no older than 21 or 22. By contrast, Scholes’s Raleigh is convincingly guileless, and the character’s shift from innocent schoolboy (‘Rather!’, ‘simply topping!’) to bold capturer of a German hostage was truly heart-rending.
At first I thought that Joe Campbell’s Osborne was a little wooden, with limited gestures and a stoic unflappability that caught me off-guard. As the play progressed, however, his calm manner of coping with the brutality of the trenches struck me as believable, especially when juxtaposed with the excitable jumpiness of Raleigh and the short fuse of Stanhope.
George Ellis as Stanhope has perfected a long-suffering, melancholic stare, used to great effect in the first half of the play, but really shines at those moments when the terrors of war become too much to bear. A scene towards the end of the play in which Raleigh criticises Stanhope for getting drunk on champagne sent shivers down my spine, with the Captain’s grit and determination etched strikingly on Ellis’s face. Stanhope’s “To forget, you little fool – to forget!” was delivered with such stark helplessness and vulnerability that it left me utterly and completely heartbroken.
With this in mind, it was lamentable that the delivery felt so stilted at times. Much of the cast had a tendency to rush over their words, and occasionally the pace was uneven. Reactions and delivery were often either too slow, disturbing the intensity of such otherwise well-developed tension and powerful human relationships, or too quick, not leaving us room to contemplate. When Stanhope saw Raleigh for the first time, his expression jarred because his shock seemed a little too instant, as though he knew what was coming. Moreover, at the very end of the play, Raleigh – seriously injured, and cared for by the Captain (“Steady, old boy. Just lie there quietly for a bit”) – didn’t pause for long enough before getting up to raise the candle that signalled the end of the action.
And yet, all things considered, even these minor errors – frustrating given that the play’s working titles were Suspense and Waiting – imbued the piece with a compassion and warmth that were arresting in the intimate space. The nervy eagerness of the actors to articulate their lines was strangely emblematic of the unease of the soldiers themselves (above all Hibbert), kept endlessly restless and fearful by imminent raids, persistent gunfire, and the stench of violent warfare.
Indeed, the greatest scene in the production is when Osborne and the high-strung, impressionable Raleigh engage in good-natured small talk before heading out, over the top, on a raid that both of them know for a fact is suicidal. The insufferable elephant-in-the-room intensifies the bond they share, and their cheerful reminiscence of life back home, miles away from military operation, left not a dry eye in the house. It was some of the most moving student theatre I have ever seen.
George Bernard Shaw praised this play as a ‘useful [corrective] to the romantic conception of war’, and in the end I was left in awe of men such as Osborne and Raleigh, who strode out into No Man’s Land and took it on, against all odds, with very little hope of survival. If this play can feel a little too familiar at times (for much of Durham’s student audience, I’m sure, it will evoke strong memories of a GCSE English class), DUCT make it feel as harrowingly relevant in 2016 as it was in 1928. It is astounding to think that, with only ten years of post-war hindsight to work with, Sheriff’s play seems as devastatingly fresh today as it would have done back then, grabbing its audience from the get-go and rejecting any hope of respite. DUCT’s compelling, admirable production is rich in detail, successful precisely because it maintains a tight focus on the humanity of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War. With November 11th fast approaching, and with 2016 the centenary of the battle of the Somme, this performance was a fitting, gripping tribute to the estimated 1.42 million men who lost their lives during those fateful 142 days of conflict.
Photograph: Durham University Classical Theatre