IN a field in northern France it is pouring with rain.
The sky has turned black, the wind has whipped itself into a fury and the heavens have opened.
Two trenches, dug nearly 100 years ago and no more than 15 feet apart, slowly fill with mud and slime and puddles of filthy water.
David Grindley looks around.
“Can you imagine what it would have been like for them?” he yells over the howling wind. “In the trenches, in this weather, knowing any moment the enemy might attack, unable to sit down or get dry, numb with terror and cold and wet. Can you imagine what living in conditions like that would do to you?”
Welcome to the battlefields of World War One – the killing grounds where hundreds of thousands of young men were slaughtered during a conflict unlike any before in history.
We are here because a new production coming to Sheffield’s Lyceum, and directed by David, is set in these exact horrific conditions.
Journey’s End, written by war veteran R C Sherrif in 1928, is recognised as a play that conjures up not only the underlying terror and boredom but also the humanity of life on the front line.
It tells the story of six men in the trenches at St Quentin in the lead up to Operation Michael, the last great German offensive in 1918 – and shows how they handle their fear by following routine.
David has been here repeatedly on research missions.
“It’s been absolutely invaluable,” he says later as we stand in Notre Dame de Lorette, the French National Memorial and Cemetery where 40,000 young men – many of them forever in their teens – are buried. “I don’t think you should do a play like this lightly.
“It is such an incredible book set during such a significant part of history, you have to honour that by getting it absolutely right – and to do that I felt I should come here.
“When you stand by the trenches and you realise the land wouldn’t have been green like it is now and the birds wouldn’t have been singing, that it would have been completely monotone and churned up, and that the enemy was more or less in touching distance, it gives you a real perspective into what the men in this play would have been going through. There is blood soaked into this soil.
“And when you experience that you begin to understand why the men act like they do.”
He recalls one actor who could not understand the fear which turned lead character Captain Stanhope from a prize soldier into a dependable, but ultimately flawed, alcoholic
“There’s one line in the play where Stanhope says that he was never scared until Vimy Ridge” explains David, as we arrive at the very sight.
“The place is famous for a famous Canadian victory over the Germans but I learnt of a battle there before that where the British tried to capture the ridge but as they advanced, the Germans were expecting them and mowed them down.
“Almost all of them died. Those that didn’t survived by playing dead, lying under the bodies of their dead comrades all day until night and then only escaping under the cover of darkness.
“I told my actor that’s what happened to Stanhope. That’s why he is like he is. Then he got it.”
David, now 41, first read the play at just 19.
“I was so moved by it then,” he says, “when the idea came up all those years later it was so easy to make the decision.
“I remember I met the original producer, Phil Cameron, in a bar in 2002 and he only had 12 minutes on his car parking time. He told me about his idea and asked do you think we could make it work? I had no hesitation. I said we definitely could. I said we’d make it the best version of the play ever. And that was it. Agreed in 12 minutes.”.
Those 12 minutes have now, he says, turned into his lifetime’s work – although it hasn’t always been completely smooth sailing.
“I was insistent the actors playing the captains in the play had to be as young as they were in real life to give that real feeling, which there was, of boys leading men,” explains David.
“And for a while that was a real sticking point with the theatres because it meant there was not a ‘big name’ leading the cast. But I wouldn’t compromise on that. That youth needed to be there.”
Eventually, one venue relented and the show was staged at London’s Comedy Theatre on January 21, 2004, exactly 75 years after the original version was staged.
Since then the play has won both a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award, while also being nominated for an Olivier.
Particularly highly praised is how David has tried to recreate the feeling of the trenches on stage, from the sombre lighting which gives the impression of a single candle burning to the explosions which boom through the audience, “putting the viewers in the middle of the action” he says.
Now, with several five star reviews already on the spring tour, he sees no reason it won’t run for many more years yet.
“I think it’s still timely,” he says, “because it is neither pro war nor against it. It is, ultimately, a play about humanity and being humane, and that will ring true forever”.
Journey’s End plays at Sheffield Lyceum Monday October 31 to November 5. It stars Graham Butler, Tim Chipping and Andy Daniel.
Tragedy of the Sheffield pals
AMONG those who experienced the true horrors of the trenches of World War One were a group of men called the Sheffield Pals.
The 1,000 strong Sheffield City Battalion was formed in September 1914, made up from a combination of university students and working men.
The battalion’s early instructions in drill took place at Bramall Lane before it left the city for advanced training in December that year.
In March 1916, the battalion were sent to take over a stretch of the front line opposite the fortified hill-top village of Serre – a position from which they would be utterly destroyed.
On Saturday June 24, the British begun a five-day bombardment intended to destroy German lines.
Reconnaissance carried out by the Pals showed German barbed wire still intact but despite concerns, at 7.30am on the morning of July 1, the Pals were ordered over the top.
They advanced, quite simply, into the spray of German machine gun fire.
Within minutes the battalion was virtually destroyed – 513 men dead, many more wounded.
The losses meant it could not continue and was disbanded immediately after.
A memorial to the Pals now stands in the village of Serre.