You enter the Etcetera theatre space to find a darkened room, ambient music, and a rifle. This sets the scene pretty well for Mametz Wood. The action begins right away with gunfire and screaming. The intensity of it really jolts you into engaging with the play. Two men crouch bewildered in a trench as a third dies of his wounds. What the audience learns later is this is actually towards the end in the timeline of events in the play. This non chronological structure allows the audience to get to know the characters, only to have them blown away a scene later. This plays with our emotions as they return to haunt us in the next scene again. The secondary effect is to disorientate the audience and their sense of time and continuity, thereby helping us to engage with the soldier’s experience more closely.
The downside of the break up of this final battle is that the intensity fluctuates wildly throughout. While great at the beginning, the near constant shouting becomes tiresome very quickly. Obviously some concessions have to be made considering the context (How does one write about a battle with the characters using their inside voices) but the effect was nevertheless a little grating after a while.
The play follows the Welsh 38th infantry division as they are tasked with taking the infamous Mametz Wood in 1916, at the height of the Battle of the Somme. The play does a wonderful job of capturing the hopelessness and depression in its dialogue and tone. While there are some playful moments (particularly thanks to Catherine Smyth’s bawdy Irishman) this hopeless tone seeps into every scene, as well it should, given the bleak subject matter. Through the dialogue is simple the work manages to convey the sheer horror of the four thousand dead without it simply becoming a statistic.
The performances on the whole are of a high quality. Most of the death scenes are excellent, especially that of devout Christian, Alun (played with remarkably visceral physicality by Blain Neale). While some felt prolonged and floundering, most are grounded in realism and melodrama is kept to a minimum. One of the most effective characters is Morgan Jones (played by Oliver Byng). A 15-year-old promoted to Corporal and struggling with the impotence of his new authority and his lack of leadership skills. The naivety and bewilderment of a teenager is captured excellently in all aspects of his performance.
Overall Mametz Wood grapples with difficult subject matter but does so with sensitivity and grace. A powerful night at the theatre.
Mametz Wood is playing Etcetera Theare Camden until 5 July. For more information and tickets, see the Etcetera Theatre ticketing site.