Owen Thomas follows up the success of his play Grav with another collaboration with the Torch Theatre and its director Peter Doran. The wood of the title is Mametz Wood on the Somme, the most significant engagement of the First World War for Welsh soldiers. In July 1916 wave upon wave of them crossed no-man’s land in an ultimately vain attempt to wrest a strategically important position from the Germans. Much of the wood was taken, but they were eventually repulsed and little was gained. The battle of Mametz Wood has figured prominently in literary and artistic responses to the Great War: there is an iconic painting by Christopher Williams, Wyn Griffiths’s memoir Up to Mametz, and perhaps the most fully achieved literary work from that war, David Jones’s In Parenthesis.
I have visited the wood and can testify to its enduring power to evoke the horrors and sacrifices of that summer: the splintered trees have re-grown but shrapnel, spent bullets and shards of metal still work their way to the surface. Dan, the central character of Thomas’s play, hands back a spent bullet case to the apparition of Billy, his dead friend and fellow soldier. It is the summer of 1966, a few days before England will beat Germany to win the World Cup. Fifty years after Billy’s death Dan has returned to pay his respects to fallen comrades.
Ifan Huw Dafydd who plays Dan is an imposing figure with a booming voice; a senior actor who holds the play and commands its audience for its first third. Gwydion Rhys appears then as Billy; he is a spirit, a memory manifesting himself from the renewed trees. He has been killed on the first day of the battle, leaving behind a young wife about to give birth. Though injured – Dan still has a pronounced limp – his friend survives to return home and marry Billy’s widow, Eileen, raising the child, a son, as his own. It is her ashes which Dan has brought with him to France and which he and Billy will scatter in the woods. There is a satisfying sense of rightness and closure about this; however, therein lies the central flaw in the plotting of this play. It is all predicated on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle and Billy’s death, but the son, who in a sense is the son of both men, appears never to have been told about his true identity. Dan’s letter of explanation to the boy is ripped up, at the insistence of Billy who acknowledges that Dan has the greater claim to be his father. But the boy now must be a fifty year old man: for the play’s premise and structure this is not acknowledged or dealt with. By 1966 surely there must be another generation, grandchildren and step grandchildren to both Dan and Billy? Born in 1916, the boy would have been conscripted or possibly have been a Bevin Boy in the Second World War. In this play he is held in aspic and it is a device which creaks.
It’s a shame because both actors are excellent and the set by Sean Crowley is spare and evocative; there are actual tree-trunks and a floor strewn with twigs and leaves. The backdrop has a ghostly perspective, an avenue of trees which suggests the size and the depth of Mametz Wood. However, at certain points the backdrop becomes a screen through which images are projected. This is unnecessary and proves particularly awkward when we see the young Eileen mouthing the exact words which Dan is reporting to Billy. The presence on a small set of two actors working well as individuals and in dialogue needs no such enhancement.
There is another problem: there are occasions when Owen Thomas overplays his imagery; Dan is at his most convincing when he is strongly rooted in his passion as a Welshman whose first language has been Cymraeg. His speeches could do with editing, rooting him to the facts of that particular engagement, that unique wood and the personal losses which still haunt him.
The Torch Theatre must also be commended for showing the “Llangwm: a Village at War” exhibition in their small gallery space. That Pembrokeshire village has put a big effort into researching and commemorating those locals who died in the Great War, including my Grandmother’s cousin James Charles Thomas who died in the Batttle of Cambrai at the end of 1917. Some corner of a foreign field is forever Tallyho Farm, Llangwm. The First World War still resonates for us, especially in this the fourth year of its centenary. The Wood will surely draw audiences across Wales, from Cardiff to Mold, on its fourteen venue tour.
Check out the Torch website for details.