It’s loud. There are bombs going off, bullets being fired, and many of the lines are shouted instead of spoken. Much of the production of Journey’s End is very loud.
But other scenes are quiet – so strangely, unnaturally quiet that even the characters comment on it. In many scenes, what is not being said makes more noise than what is.
That’s war, and it is exemplified and personified in Journey’s End, the exhausting war drama that is currently being performed at the Belasco Theatre. Artistically rendered and meticulously acted, this taunt, emotionally charged performance tells the story of a group of soldiers in the trenches in World War I. Lieutenant Raleigh is the newest addition to the group, a fresh-faced schoolboy who is keen to fight the battles. He is a childhood friend of Captain Stanhope, information he quickly shares with Lieutenant Osborne, the kindly father figure. The men are accompanied by Private Mason, who serves them badly prepared food with a side of deadpan witticism, and Lieutenant Trotter, a cheerful overweight man who never stops eating or chuckling.
These soldiers are led by Stanhope, who is played with a fierce intensity by Hugh Dancy. The most tortured and romantic of the men, he is suffering from acute fear of battle, which he hides behind an exterior of alcohol. He downs glass after glass of whiskey, saying, “I couldn’t bear being fully conscious all the time.”
The soldiers dwell awkwardly between action and inaction, waiting for an attack that they know is inevitable and frequently commenting on the unnatural quiet. They are then assigned to perform a raid on the enemy, employing two of them as key players and shaking what stability they briefly clung to in the trenches.
This stability is maintained by their careful use of language and their reluctance to discuss the danger they know they are in. They deliberately employ euphemisms whenever possible, never actually stating what it is they are doing or they are afraid of. War is “a damn nuisance” and “a bit strange” to these men. But their lack of language is compensated for by the physical and emotional anguish that is depicted in their performances.
Each man’s fear and grief, as well as his determination and bravado, is depicted in a different manner and in a deliberate and masterful way. As Raleigh, Stark Sands possesses a youthful determination that is admirable as well as pitiable. As Private Mason, Jefferson May’s understated comedic timing is used to its full effect, providing levity to comments about onion soup and tea. Boyd Gaines’ performance as the wise, paternal Osborne is masterful, as he manages to depict the fear as well as the courage needed to survive the war and maintain a sense of humanity.
The man suffering the most from the war is Stanhope, and Dancy depicts his anguish fear in a brutally forceful and concentrated way. He borders on hysteria, but he never crosses the threshold to it. His affection for his soldiers is tangible, as is his determination to survive at all costs. He touches on the depths of war and what it does to the people who fight it – the violence, the loss and the addiction. But it only hints at it, just as the play only hints at the battles. The entire script is set in the trenches, and many of the scenes are dark or dimly lit by candles. There are only suggestions of the actual war, as the battles are not shown but suggested by the sounds of gunfire and bombs. This renders them even more horrifically than if they had been shown onstage.
What these men are experiencing, and how they are coping with it, is unlike anything they have ever known before. Their survival mechanism is to act like everything is normal even though they know it is anything but. In the understated, minimalist script, Osborne reads out loud from Alice in Wonderland. Before going to the trenches with Raleigh, he quotes the Walrus and the Carpenter. The parallels are not difficult to draw.
The surrealism of this show, which first played more than six decades ago, has not lost its effect. Nor has it lost its effect. What happens to these men has happened to others before and will happen to others again. Their anguish, their pain and their loss is not unusual. It’s war.