One of the truly great plays of the 20th Century, Journey’s End has been re-imagined in thousands of performances, including five film and television adaptations and even productions by prisoners of war.
Written in 1928 and depicting the lives of a company of soldiers in the British trenches during the First World War, Journey’s End is set to be revived once again this Wednesday 6 December in a run of performances by the Sheffield University Theatre Company (SUTCo). With the play turning 90 next year and it being the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day on 11 November 2018, this production will be one of the last performances to take place with the conflict still within living memory.
The significance of this was not lost on the cast and crew. Speaking to Forge, the production’s director Laurence Hunt said: “This world war shaped Britain’s century. The country ripped itself apart in this war for seemingly little gain. World War One makes me sadder than World War Two because so many people were lied to and told ‘It’s going to be great, it’s going to be fun. Join up.’” The rush of eager youths desperate to sign up and fight for their country is embodied by the character of Raleigh (Katy Leigh), who is shocked by what the war has done to his childhood friend and hero, Captain Dennis Stanhope, portrayed by George Evans.
The play captures the tragic futility of the war but also the humdrum nature of life in the trenches. The typical soldier only spent 15% of their time on duty in the front line and the relative scarcity of major attacks meant that the overriding emotion for most combatants was boredom. One soldier in the play passes the time by colouring a circle on a chart for every hour that passes.
In humanising its soldiers, Journey’s End has seen its influence felt throughout popular culture since its debut, most famously in the fourth series of Blackadder which can be read as an affectionate parody of the play, right down to the company cook (Baldrick/Private Mason) somehow managing to make the men’s meagre rations ever more revolting. “The conversation and dialogue in the show is in many scenes un-warlike” said George Evans. “I think it’s very important that you view these characters not as officers and soldiers in the war but as people that have been transplanted into this environment.”
Traditionally a favourite of boy’s schools and all male theatre groups, SUTCo have taken the rare decision to cast female actors in roles usually taken by males. “It’s opened up a whole pool of talented people” said Laurence Hunt when discussing the casting and production process. “It doesn’t do the text any harm actually to have female actors playing males.”
Watching the cast in rehearsal, I was inclined to agree with him. This talented group of actors demonstrated that however you choose to stage the play, Journey’s End is about ordinary people, many of them of university age, with all their strengths and weaknesses, loves and follies, caught up in a terrible situation and just trying to make the best of it with gender being no barrier to communicating that.
Tickets are available on their website for five performances from Wednesday 6 – Saturday 9 December at the Portland Works, Randall Street.
Photos by Dan West.