BLOG Brian Roper

NWR Issue 104

Mametz, National Theatre Wales until 5 July

If you are going to see this production, we were told (and you should), you are advised to dress for the outdoors. As our long spell of fine weather broke this turned out to be sound advice. I would add that wou would also be well advised to brush up on your Quantum Physics.

The futility of war has long been a fertile field. 4,000 casualties for not much ground is not a great score even by First World War standards. The sacrifices of Welsh soldiery in the Battle of the Somme forms part of the culture of modern Wales even now. Few families were untouched then. How then to tell the story?

National Theatre Wales has developed a reputation for getting theatre ‘out there’. This time, ‘out there’ was at the end of a rutted track, across uncut meadows, along simulated trenches reminding us that war did not end in 1916, into milking barns and chicken houses and on to the woods. As ever the ‘sets’ were evocative and felt (and smelled) authentic.

The importance of communications in this conflict was made apparent by the numbers of men killed running messages to and from HQ and by the dependence on telephone lines which proved unable to withstand the rigours of the battlefield. Telephone lines were used in this production to stitch the sets together as guide posts providing direction in turmoil .

Our ostensible guides were the officers, commissioned and not, but our real guides were the infantry soldiers played by a lively and energetic cast amongst whom Rhys Isaac-Jones playing David Jones stood out. He projected his outsiderness with clarity and calmness. This play draws heavily and successfully on David Jones’ In Parenthesis. The travails of war seen from the perspective of the ordinary soldier have not historically featured as strongly as those of the officer class. Owen Sheers wanted to ‘make David Jones manifest’, and he has succeeded. Sheers also observed that ‘we are still catching up with David Jones’ This play will greatly accelerate our progress.

We had another guide. That Einstein published his General Theory in 1916 is well known, and that artillery men knew about gravity before then, since Newton, is also established. Most, including Owen Sheers, would agree that war is best avoided. That science and technology are its handmaidens is a commonplace.

The purpose in the production of what came close to feeling like a seminar on Quantum Physics was unclear and distracting. Rhodri Meilir played the part well, albeit with a mitteleuropean accent, but the role of this character, who had a lot to say, was unclear. It was good to be invited into a world beyond R and R army style (with its use of vernacular language) and the usually expressed sentiments of love of country, home and family, but I wonder how many made the journey.

The experiences of the invaded are also often neglected in war-set theatre production. The sense of displacement of Antoinette, played by Tara D’Arquian, from ‘her’ wood was clear and delivered with conviction. Her dominance of the trench setting was the perfect counterpoint to the testosterone charged and charging squaddies.

The trench set, as centerpiece, was beautifully conceived with its use of light and its capacity to surprise. The interplay with an adjoining farmhouse brought dynamism to what otherwise was a rather flat and linear space. Sheers wanted ‘to scare us with the over-the-top reenactment’, and succeeded admirably.

Working en plein air brings many technical challenges, particularly in drizzle. The lighting systems were well up to the challenge and made the wayside tableaux of scenes from the battle arresting. They made a calvary out of chaos. But it was the sound system which excelled. Stopping just short of arresting, the small arms fire and especially the rumble of the artillery brought a depth and conviction to this production which will long remain in the memory.

Asked his opinion of the play, the current Mayor of Mametz said ‘Magnifique.’ I would say peut-être.

As we left the birds were singing as they were, I hope, in Mametz.

‘Mametz’ runs until 5 July at Great Llancayo Upper Wood near Usk, Monmouthshire.

Inspired by Welsh writer Owen Sheers’ poem ‘Mametz Wood’, this production draws on written material by the poets who fought in or witnessed one of the war’s bloodiest conflicts, the Battle of Mametz Wood, in which 4,000 of the the 38th (Welsh) Division were killed or wounded and which David Jones’ In Parenthesis recounts. Among the soldiers who took part were several key Welsh and English war poets, including Robert Graves, David Jones, Siegfried Sassoon and Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, and Sheers’ own great, great uncle, William Gwyn Davies.


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