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Mametz- National Theatre of Wales , Great Llancayo Upper Wood, Trostre Common , July 1, 2014
At National Theatre by Mametz- National Theatre of Wales Director Matthew Dunster is subject of a thirty-five page profile in the 2012 book “Getting Directions.” In a revealing observation of a production from preparation to press night the author cites a first note from the director to his cast. “My rules on approaching anything are simple: clarity-story-dramatic effectiveness. I want it to be clear.”

It is a message brought to the vision of “Mametz”, Dunster’s first work in Wales. He incorporates high points of directorial and design bravura that audibly draw the audience’s breath. Like all the best artistic accomplishment the techniques that Dunster, designer Jon Bausor and the creative team employ are ones of utter simplicity. “Mametz” is epic in conception and scale, doing what only national theatre can, and should, do.

It folds naturally into the National Theatre of Wales’ schema. The concept has come not from a dramatist but from a poet. “Mametz” is conceived by a poetic sensibility. It is a natural progression for Owen Sheers that he move back in time from the contemporary real soldiers who made both subject and performers for his “Two Worlds of Charlie F.”

The genesis of “Mametz” is literary, the fact of the company of Welsh soldiery in July 1916 containing two writers, a private and an officer, who made out of their experience literary testaments of enduring quality. The better known is David Jones, played by a youthful Rhys Isaac-Jones; the author of “In Parenthesis” at the time was only twenty-one. Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, five years older, is to be the author fifteen years later of “Up to Mametz”. It will be the least of this production’s achievement if it brings a new generation to the book. Long neglected amidst war memoirs it has been re-issued by an editor who is himself a distinguished soldier. In quality Wyn Griffith is the equal of the more feted Robert Graves, himself also a combatant in the assault on Mametz Wood.

Wyn Griffith is played by two actors. Rhys Rusbatch is the officer in the trenches and Michael Elwyn plays the Inland Revenue officer in his retirement decades on. Sheers has taken family testimony of the grandfather who can crack the “Times” crossword in thirty minutes, is a broadcaster, captain of Wales’ team for the “Round Britain” quiz and an enjoyer of Brahms and Wagner. Here he is portrayed in the most domestic of roles, the shopper holding a couple of supermarket bags fitting in, as he liked to, a glass of stout on the way home. The elder man’s first words touch on the fallibility of memory, and his gradual coming to terms with horror and its realisation in his memoir.

“Mametz” has been criticised for a dearth of drama. That is true but it misreads the intention. “Mametz” should be read as one element of a national enterprise of remembrance. It fits alongside Gregynog’s festival of war-themed music that culminated in the same week in a concert in Aberystwyth’s Great Hall broadcast across Britain.

It is a poet’s work. Dramatic writing is convergent, the words being ever purged for a concentration of action. Poetic language is divergent, seeking out correspondence and metaphor. Sheers has located one such correspondence in the figure of Willem de Sitter, a citizen of neutral Holland in bow-tie and waistcoat. His wartime goal is to somehow convey the Theory of Relativity under wartime restrictions to Arthur Eddington, a professor at Cambridge and appropriately a pacifist, who himself narrowly escaped being gaoled.

De Sitter is a device for synchronicity, in which vaulting intellectual leaps are played out alongside the sufferings of millions strung along the hundreds of miles of trenches. De Sitter is a regular Brechtian interruption and his declamations jarring. Time may be elastic in sub-atomic physics but his critique of humans’ obeisance to “the tyranny of now” rings harsh when dramatised next to a squad of hardly trained youths. Pain binds its sufferer to a perpetual present. Sheers is sharp on the realities of a military force drawn from conscripts. On average the often teenagers had fired a total of twenty-four bullets in their training.

The schema of Jon Bausor’s design is tripartite, the audience moving slowly in ascent. The first and shortest is a kind of prelude and takes the form of a bacchanalian estaminet scene far from the front. The second converts with brilliance an adjoining second barn into an auditorium of breadth and versatility. Finally, a hilltop copse stands for the assault on Mametz wood itself.

This last sequence has invited the most varied response. Many audience members report being moved deeply. Theatrically, in opening up the visual space the artists lose the control that automatically compels the viewing eye to the image of their making. Within the glade this viewer’s eye is drawn to the height of the trees that tower over the company. But then the small scale of the players is emblematic of our gaze into the past. The tendency of the eye to roam is prompted by the particular mix of the elements, a pitter-patter of rain, not a breadth of wind, light nudging towards dusk. It prompts too a reflection that these trees are set to outlast watchers and players, their children and grandchildren too. De Sitter’s protests notwithstanding the thoughts of humans are pretty much unfettered by the present.

National Theatre of Wales has a laudable practice of giving young actors their first professional experience. Kayed Mohamed-Mason, last reviewed here for an explosive performance in “Rent”, is first seen as a combatant soldier in contemporary battle dress relaxing over a tablet screen. This relativisation of history rings false. The soldiers of today are not untrained youths plucked from field or shop a few weeks ago. They are among us, on stage in “the Two Worlds of Charlie F” and present in life, not least in the Brecons and the Black Mountains. I myself had been seated just a few hours before at a table on Sennybridge’s fringe next to a dozen off-duty soldiers. Most of all, conflicts in imploded states, ill-defined and by comparison small-scale, are a universe away from a continental war fought by standing armies that were composed of millions.

The Guardian’s ever percipient writer picked out the core in “the woods where the faces of the dead soldiers stare out from their photographs: for ever young; for ever lost.” Performance is human beings in action and as such can only be a hint of a hint of the reality of war. The writer from the Times who is present hears “thunderous artillery.” But it is not. It is a soundtrack. Every real detonation- and they were of a magnitude so as to be heard in England- sends out shockwaves. The many unwounded teenagers who were condemned to death for dereliction of duty would have been pummelled for months by shockwaves. No theatre company could dare to begin to emulate a real explosion.

“Mametz” is an enterprise of nobility and honour. It has a stature that rightly has the Minister for Culture and Sport in attendance. But those great pictures in the copse say it, that the art that captures war’s enormity is one that comes with neither sound nor movement. The art that excels is in the form where the relationship between work and observer is outside time and invites contemplation. It is the sculpture of Charles Sergeant Jagger or the still photographs that say so much. Nothing can exceed in impact John Singer Sergeant’s “Gassed” in the Imperial War Museum. To feel the soldier in the trenches look to Paul Nash or Nevinson’s “La Mitrailleuse 1915”.

These still images have a counterpart in another silent act, that of reading. “Mametz” may bring a revived appreciation of David Jones and Llewelyn Wyn Griffith. No dramatist can equal the needle-sharp prose of “Up to Mametz”. When Wyn Griffith views a standard issue army bed he says ““on such a bed flesh was no protection to the bones; it was a small envelope containing a jumble of crossing nerves, warring with themselves and raised to a state of red-hot sensitivity.” In his last chapter “the Gleaning” he looks back at Mametz Wood as “the long-stretched agony of the week had scoured something out of every man in the column.” It is beyond acting to match the eyes of soldiers which are “dull and slow-moving, coated with a film that turned their opacity into a revelation of all the anguish that lay behind them.” Wyn Griffith ends with a conclusion that is absolute: “there were two kinds of men in the world-those who had been in the trenches, and the rest.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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