Phil Morris sits down with the iconic Owen Sheers to discuss his play Mametz that explores a war assault during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
This new site-specific production will relocate the action of the assault on Mametz Wood – by a Welsh Division during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 – to Great Llancayo Upper Wood near Usk.
The play was co-commissioned by National Theatre Wales and the 14-18 NOW WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, and it will be the first large-scale theatre production to be staged as part of the commemorations of the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
There is a discernible buzz of anticipation around the opening of Mametz, which is the second collaboration between writer Owen Sheers and National Theatre Wales, following the critically acclaimed The Passion in Port Talbot.
Phil Morris: Perhaps we should start with how your play Mametz came about? What inspired you to write about the First World War?
Owen Sheers: It all started in 1998 when Chris Morris (filmmaker and lecturer at the University of South Wales) found an out of a print copy of Wyn Griffith’s Up to Mametz in a bargain bin in Booth’s bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. It’s a war memoir that is not widely known but it’s beautiful, quietly moving and yet clinical account [of the Battle for Mametz Wood] by a staff officer. Griffith was someone who issued orders, who then had to witness the consequences of those orders. Chris picked this book up and, through Wyn Griffith, learned about the battle, which was the first major action of the 38th Welsh Division. I think it’s important to say here that it wasn’t just the Welsh who fought at Mametz.
Indeed, but a significantly high proportion of the casualties of the battle came from the Welsh Division?
Four thousand Welsh soldiers were lost over the first three days – that is, killed or severely wounded.
It was at the time of the eighty-fifth anniversary of the battle, that Chris came to me, while I was a presenter of the BBC arts programme Double Yellow, and told me that not only was Wyn Griffith in Mametz but also David Jones, the author of In Parenthesis.
I became fascinated by the fact that there were these two soldiers, one a staff officer, one a private, who were both in the 15th Welch Fusiliers at Mametz. They both wrote brilliantly about this battle but at different ends of the literary spectrum. For my money, by far the most interesting piece of writing to come out of the First World War is by David Jones.
Well, Chris convinced me and another filmmaker, Matthew Springford, to go to Mametz to make a short film about these two writers. I went there and it was a very powerful experience, out of which I wrote a poem called ‘Mametz Wood’, which has since taken on a life on of its own.
It has rapidly become a staple of the GCSE syllabus…
Well, it seems that the hunger for war poetry extends even to poets who weren’t in the First World War. But the real problem with how we teach war poetry is that we focus on the likes of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, who were officers, but we don’t teach David Jones, Isaac Rosenberg or Ivor Gurney, who were all privates. And who I think have a much more interesting perspective actually.
So anyway [the short film we made in Mametz] felt like the end of our relationship with the battle, and with those writers – except that we both felt that it wasn’t.
Did writing NTW’s landmark production of The Passion in Port Talbot give you a renewed impetus to return to the subject of the battle?
The Passion was my first piece of theatre and I think it was certainly a game-changer for me, and I’d like to think it was a bit of a game-changer for Wales in terms of its creative scope and what it showed could be achieved through site-specific theatre.
It was an extraordinary production. At the time I marvelled at its massive scale, and the way it seemed to tap into so many aspects of Welshness; religious non-conformism, radical politics and economics, and our culture – it told the story of a historic event but, at the same time, it felt immediate and relevant.
It was an adaptation of many things, much more than just The Passion element.
So what did you learn from The Passion that went into the writing of Mametz?
[The Passion] was an extraordinary piece of theatre to cut my teeth on, because from the very beginning I was there with Bill [Mitchell] and Michael [Sheen] contributing to where the settings would be, and so straight away I was involved in a dialogue with that place, which I guess felt quite natural with me from my previous writing. I had to think about the audience as an extra cast member. Where do they move? How do they walk? What do they see? I also had to think about community involvement. The final script was only written in the two to three weeks running up to the performance of The Passion.
That was taking a considerable risk.
Well, I had been working on the project for two and a half years. But when we cast the production we didn’t have a complete script because that’s partly how Michael wanted to do it. So in the days running up to the weekend of the performance, I’d be writing until four in the morning, emailing pages to Michael. He’d be emailing it back at six in the morning, and I’d be thinking, ‘God you’re up as well!’ Which was a great thrill, but was also a bit scary.
The production felt like that – urgent, it didn’t feel over-planned. Even though obviously a lot of work went into how the spaces and crowds were managed.
I think I did learn on The Passion how to write a play with sight in mind. And, just to end the story with Chris – he came to me having seen The Passion and said; ‘I always thought [the story of Mametz] should be a film, but now I’ve seen The Passion what about a play?’ I said, ‘In a play, I’d want to recreate or evoke a trench in a field.’ So we both went to John McGrath with that basic idea, and he said, ‘Okay, let’s start exploring…’
The relationship between site and event, which I think is the crucial element in theatre, sometimes gets lost in traditional theatre spaces, and NTW is all about exploring that relationship. I get the sense from you that Mametz Wood is a very meaningful place for you.
It is yes, partly because I’ve read so much about the people who were there. This production began with the site. It began with this idea of a field and a wood. Traditionally the wood has been a place of refuge for Welsh rebels and Welsh soldiers. There’s a poem by Llywelyn ap y Moel titled ‘To the Greyrock Woods’ – which is included in my anthology A Poet’s Guide to Britain – in which the poet says that, ‘To Owain’s men [the wood] is London’.
So there’s something very poignant about Mametz – you transpose a wood from Flanders to Wales and it’s a wood, the elementals are the same. So absolutely it began with the site, but it’s also a very literary play and it’s packed full of writers, and I’m quite a literary writer.
National Theatre Wales stake their claim as specialists in site-specific theatre and have done so brilliantly. But as a writer, I’m very passionate about the fact that we now have a strong theatrical culture and a strong performance culture, but I ask myself – do we have a strong culture of drama? I’m not sure we do, because for young Scottish directors/ writers/actors, if they want to explore their recent dramatic past, they can go into a library or bookshop and find it on a shelf. And it’s the same in Ireland. But in Wales, what are you going to put on that shelf? Under Milk Wood? House of America?
There’s Emlyn Williams if you go back a bit.
Exactly, if you want to go back. But what if you want to explore what’s happened in the last thirty years in Wales? I’ve talked about this a lot with John McGrath, about how The Passion existed in many forms; a documentary, a performance, a novella, but it doesn’t exist as a play script, which is interesting.
What we lack in Wales is a repertory of plays, that’s what’s missing.
How plays live is by amateur groups picking them off the shelf and doing them, isn’t it?
I agree, as those plays are revived they’re reinterpreted, reassessed and reimagined and that’s what keeps them alive.
It’s important to say that one aspiration [for this play] is to learn to what extent we can take the best of site-specific theatre and the best of literary theatre and meld them together. Our director, Matthew Dunster, who’s brilliant, said to me at one point in the process, ‘Look it’s great stuff but it’s very literary. For a certain part of the play, I’ve got to be able to control the space. Because for the audience to get this to hear this, I can’t be contending against wind and weather.’ So hopefully you’ll see how we’ve tried to have our site-specific cake and eat it.
I think what’s interesting… is to try to do this in two ways. We’re bringing home the stories of the soldiers, and we’re relocating Mametz geographically. Many of the men who died at Mametz Wood were from Brecon and Monmouthshire so there’s something incredible about bringing [their battle] back to the Welsh landscape.
And some of those men were from Senghenydd, who’d survived that terrible mining disaster…
I have one character [in the play] who is a survivor of that disaster, well actually he wasn’t there. He went on the horses the day before, got hammered and was hungover when the tragedy happened. And this character brings a pang of guilt into the play of survivor’s guilt.
One thing I’m trying to do with the characters… is drawn on contemporary ideas of youth. I want people to see these characters as First World War soldiers, but also to recognise in them the kids they saw in Tesco yesterday. There’s the obvious context that boys from Wales are still going off to war and are dying now in very similar circumstances.
There’s a lot of counter-revisionism going on right now, with some historians claiming that although World War I was a terrible waste of life, it was actually a necessary and just war. How do you feel about that?
I think no one likes a work of art that has it’s finger-wagging at them. My job is to take certain aspirations into the play, but also to present what I found when I looked at the primary sources. And what I found is that there was a real enthusiasm for this fight. David Jones, this tiny, aesthetic, painter and fantastic writer, was dying for the fight – his biggest concern was that he might miss it. So rather than focus on the question of whether the war was necessary or not, I wanted to shine a light on the extent of the blood lust in Britain at that time. This is something I’ve brought into the play from my previous works, Pink Mist and The Two Worlds of Charlie F, an acknowledgement that all of these young soldiers were asked to become killers – it’s really important to keep that in the balance because it’s so easy to forget. There’s this awful phrase ‘war is politics by other means’ – and all of the contemporary soldiers I interviewed for Charlie F used to say that. But I think no, it’s not politics by other means, it is a failure of politics, a failure of diplomacy.
So I think whenever [someone says] it was a necessary war, you can’t help but feel that there were alternatives. I’ve got a bit [in the play] of Lloyd George’s speech from when he was raising the 38th Welsh Division in Queen’s Hall. He makes the case of defending small nations and says that Wales is a small nation that should stand up for the defence of other small nations like Serbia. But it’s not a convincing political argument, it’s an overwhelming emotional argument. And the bit of the speech I’ve kept is when he describes the young recruits as ‘the lucky generation’ – he explains that while other generations have to offer their sacrifice through work and graft, quite often succumbing to a dull way of life, young men could offer their sacrifice through glory in battle. He says his only regret is that he’s too old to join them.
He was probably being sincere, to a degree.
He was, except not that long before he was writing to his wife saying I don’t want some stupid war to take the life of my boy. So it’s hard to know, maybe he was heartfelt, I think the political and moral mind hadn’t yet caught up with technology. No one knew what they were sending those boys into.
And that’s the terrible truth of the Battle of Mametz, there was a miscalculation, by senior British Army staff, of the efficacy of machine-gun fire and the carnage it can cause.
There’s an awful moment when the Welsh were in the middle of the wood being shelled by the Germans, and then they were shelled by the British. In one of the historical magazines that came out just after the war [there’s an] awful piece of rewriting of history. In this article on Mametz, they blame the Welsh, saying our Celtic brothers in their fashion, in their character were over-enthusiastic and overran the bombardment, and were, unfortunately… it’s all bullshit. The whole thing was a prime example of technology and science winning over flesh and bone.
I was talking earlier about the challenge of what to do with a First World War narrative to make it different. And I think our angle of entry is science. I worked on this other project – a libretto with the Welsh composer Mark Bowden – creating a contemporary response to Haydn’s Creation Oratorio. We got to spend three days in CERN [for research] and while I was there I read up on ‘The Theory of General Relativity’ and realised that it was in 1916 that Einstein’s great work reached Britain via a conduit, a Dutch physicist named Willem de Sitter. So while this terrible war was happening, this huge idea was going from Germany to Holland to Britain and, because of Arthur Eddington, to the wider world. There was this massive step forward for humanity while there was also this horrific step backwards. And Willem de Sitter became a character in this play, he provides… this broader view of time, he gives us the chance to talk about science and technology.
I have a sense that Mametz the play will be quite epic in scale.
I hope it is epic in its temporal scope, but then I’m also trying to tell a story in an hour and a half that is intimate… I’m a firm believer that you can have spectacle [in a play], but unless you’re taking an audience on an emotional arc the play is not going to resonate with them. I hope in that [in Mametz] we get these intimate stories, both of the men who fought and the women they left behind.
I think there’s always a danger when dramatising World War I narratives that, in attempting to ennoble the suffering of the soldiers, you end up ennobling war itself. How have you sought to navigate the line between commemoration and celebration?
That’s a good question. I certainly won’t, as with Pink Mist and The Two Worlds of Charlie F, to put [the reality of war] in the audience’s faces and say this is it – it’s ugly. And some of it is inherently in the writing of Wyn Griffith and David Jones, they wrote about how ignoble war is. And then there’s the character of Willem de Sitter, he provokes the audience by telling them that you can’t think of the past as safe. Because if you have a physicist’s perspective of time, past, present and future don’t mean anything. I think that we need to feel the mistakes of the past as if we’ve just made them, because unless we do, how are we going to respond to them.
Is that the central idea of Mametz?
I think it’s in there.
Site-specific theatre, as an immersive sensory experience, is very good at making you feel things, on both a physical and emotional level – but I wonder to what extent it makes you think?
I’m quite an instinctive writer… and with Willem de Sitter, I have a character who is performing a very useful function. It’s good to have people immersed in the action of the play and then have him pull them out and ask them questions.
Regarding Welsh historical narratives, as you said earlier the Battle of Mametz wasn’t solely a Welsh disaster, but it is one that resonates with all the other disasters in our history.
We like a disaster don’t we?
Is there a danger that – and I’m not saying your play does this – that the Welsh too often define themselves as the victims of history, as merely the colonised playthings of the English who exploited and manipulated us and sent us off to die in their wars?
But that’s why it’s very useful in Mametz to have Lloyd George as an instigator of the war. What he communicates in his speech is the other side of Welsh history. He talks of the Welsh as the race that defended against the English, defended against the Normans, fought at Agincourt. Some of the Welsh characters in my play felt that it was an honour and privilege for them to fight. And many of the soldiers in the battle were from the London Welsh Division 15th Fusiliers – a lot of them were cockneys. And this is something that David Jones draws upon brilliantly in his book In Parenthesis, he writes with the cadences of the valleys, the cadences of Monmouthshire and the cadences of the London Welsh. I hope that it means in the play we have a range of accents that doesn’t make it feel too parochial because the people being blown up were also from Tottenham and the East End.
Who identified themselves as Welsh even though they were born in London and Kent?
Yes, and I hope that will help to diffuse the sense of the ‘victimised Welshman’ I guess.
How would you describe the difference between writing poetry and writing for the theatre?
It’s like writing in two different languages. When you’re writing for the theatre you are literally talking to yourself in different accents, in different voices, and you are always thinking of the audience. I think if you’re writing a poem properly – obviously when you edit you have to consider how someone else might receive it – you’re writing it for the sake of the poem itself if that makes sense.
Your poem ‘Mametz Wood’ has such a strong sense of your individual voice. How did you then come up with a play in which the narrative is displaced over so many voices and temporalities?
It’s funny, when the publicity material went out [for the play] it said this was a play inspired by my poem. But it was actually inspired by the works of David Jones and Wyn Griffith. What I will say is that the poem ends with this idea that it’s only with the process of unearthing that these soldiers were allowed to sing. I do want the dead to speak in this play.
There’s a line where the remains of the soldiers are described as like a ‘foreign body’ that has worked its way to the surface.
Exactly, to the surface of the skin.
What do you think is being worked to the surface of the skin during this year of commemoration and remembrance?
I think we don’t know yet, and that’s good. I always prefer works of art that ask more questions than they answer. I believe we partly write to understand, I certainly do. I took a lot of questions into this play, some of them have been answered and a lot of them won’t be answered until it happens – some will never be answered. I think it’ll be really interesting to see what turns up over the rest of this year.
You’ve written a lot on military themes and military subjects. The vast majority of contemporary writers have, mercifully, never been exposed to war. Writers today have to search for their truth among the banalities of a safer, less extreme form of existence. Do you – and I know this is the wrong word – envy the war poets the intensity and inherent drama of their war experiences, which fed directly into their work?
I think you can’t envy them their position. What is the right word? Let’s put it this way, when I was working on Charlie F I asked if I could go out to Afghanistan and I was refused by the MOD. So yes, there is a part of me as a writer that would want to be exposed to things that I could never imagine, that I could then write about. There are acres of brilliant journalism [on war] but a good poem penetrates like nothing else. I’d like a newspaper to send me out to a war zone, not as a journalist but as a poet.
I should point out that none of my military writing has been a master plan. I once played Wilfred Owen in a play and got interested in the First World War poets. I wrote a radio play about Alun Lewis and wrote a one-man play about the Second World War poet Keith Douglas. But it has been an organic process. My professional writing life has run exactly parallel to a period when we’ve been in conflict. We’re still doing it, and as long as we’re still doing it I’ve got to write about it.
Resistance and the Keith Douglas play were prisms through which I wanted to refract what we were doing during the past ten or twelve years. Working on Charlie F, I did about thirty interviews with wounded service personnel and their families. I haven’t gone to the front line, but I got as close as you can without going there. I interviewed those people when they were absolutely still living the issues of the plays – their wounds were very, very recent – and they were fantastically generous with their responses because they wanted their stories told.
I taught at the University of Ohio a few years ago, and I had several students there who were veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. I was struck by their complex reactions to their experiences. Most of them didn’t regret their years of service or want to distance themselves from it. Then again, they didn’t seem to have bought into the neo-con project either, or into the so-called ‘war against terrorism’. They each saw their particular war in a very private personal way.
Yes, a lot of the boys I spoke to said the best moments of their life were the firefights.
Mametz runs from the 24th of June until the 5th of July. For details and booking go to:
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Illustration by Dean Lewis