×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

To the Green Fields Beyond

What country, friends, is this?" asks Viola in "Twelfth Night," the Shakespeare text that Sam Mendes put aside so he could direct "To the Green Fields Beyond" for his post-Oscar return to home base, i.e. London's Donmar Warehouse. And for the first third or so of Nick Whitby's wartime drama, an audience may find itself posing their version of that very question: Where, exactly, is Whitby heading with his elaborate slang (sample line: "Dobbs, mate - ponks like home! Not a whiff o'stiff?") Or Mendes, too, in a production so intimate that you feel as if you are eavesdropping on the characters' thoughts, even if you can't always make out what they're saying? And yet, as "American Beauty" famously advised, look closer.

With:
Child - Dougray Scott Cossum - Adrian Scarborough Mo - Hugh Dancy Ain - Ray Winstone Lion - Nitin Ganatra Kirkpatrick - Paul Venables Dice - Danny Sapani The Woman - Johanna Lonsky Venus - Finbar Lynch Duff - Danny Babington Reconnaissance Officer - Gary Powell

What country, friends, is this?” asks Viola in “Twelfth Night,” the Shakespeare text that Sam Mendes put aside so he could direct “To the Green Fields Beyond” for his post-Oscar return to home base, i.e. London’s Donmar Warehouse. And for the first third or so of Nick Whitby’s wartime drama, an audience may find itself posing their version of that very question: Where, exactly, is Whitby heading with his elaborate slang (sample line: “Dobbs, mate – ponks like home! Not a whiff o’stiff?”) Or Mendes, too, in a production so intimate that you feel as if you are eavesdropping on the characters’ thoughts, even if you can’t always make out what they’re saying? And yet, as “American Beauty” famously advised, look closer.

A World War I British tank corps existentially adrift in a French forest on the eve (nearly) of armistice might seem planets away from the restless present-day American suburbia that brought Mendes his Academy Award in March. But the affinities between the film and play — and their director’s unerringly empathic treatment of both — are clear long before Child (Dougray Scott), the schoolteacher-turned-angry military recruit, argues that “when life becomes this ugly, there must be something equal of beauty hiding within.” In the face of death, “To the Green Fields Beyond” dares to say, lies the capacity for grace, which lends Whitby’s finest passages a terrible beauty indeed.

Those sequences, it must be said, can seem a shade infrequent, not least when Whitby, a London fringe player of the mid-1980s who has worked mostly of late in TV, puts an overwrought cosmic spin on his “Ship of Fools”-type structure — think an English warhorse like “Journey’s End” adapted for the era of “The Thin Red Line.” (Having characters called Child, Dice and Lion is one indication that naturalism is off the menu.)

Far more interesting than the men’s status as incipient philosophes — “Death is real; everything else is unreal,” goes a not atypical remark — is the play’s occupancy of a familiar genre treated with unfamiliar detail. How many people know such terms as “nock,” “novvies” or “sponson,” not to mention a phrase like “I’m kiff”? (The glossary at the back of the published script would serve the theater program well.)

There’s an intrigue about the play’s attention to milieu-specific minutiae that tends to evaporate the more abstract the writing becomes. We can intuit, for instance, for ourselves the essential gray area occupied by war without needing Child to spell it out for us. “Things are happening. Extraordinary things,” he tells the visiting American journalist, Kirkpatrick (Paul Venables, miscast), the play’s resident stooge, who has come to report on the eve of battle in what Child scornfully refers to as “newspaper truth.” (Like David Hare’s concurrent “My Zinc Bed,” Whitby’s play takes a less than charitable view of the fourth estate.) But long before a single word has been spoken, Mendes makes palpable that very immanence spoken of by Child.

On view as we enter the auditorium is Anthony Ward’s shimmering forest of birch, which looks as if it could reach to the same heaven invoked in the text. Howard Harrison’s lighting lends a Corot-like delicacy to a dusky tale, its half-light poignantly echoed — in human terms — in the men’s final night before near-certain death.

While the script sometimes prefers to tell instead of show, Whitby is blessed to have in Mendes a director who understands a play’s mechanics no less fully than Ain (a likable, if not always audible, Ray Winstone), the unit’s metaphysically minded Cockney driver, does the tank.

It won’t be lost on anyone — especially in an egalitarian-minded theater like the Donmar, Nicole Kidman or not — that an army regiment’s necessary precision corresponds on some level to that of a troupe of actors: One false move, and you’re finished. So it comes as a peculiar form of mimesis that the tank crew’s only outsiders — the journalist and a Belgian prostitute known just as the Woman (Johanna Lonsky) — are the weak links in an otherwise top-drawer cast. Then again, Lonsky gets one of the play’s more portentous passages, complete with a further reminder of “American Beauty”: “What is ugly can be beautiful,” she tells Ain, before adding, “Do you think this war will make a world that understands such things?”

That question ricochets throughout a play whose men must choose between a doomed heroism or simply calling it quits. There’s been scarcely a more moving scene this year than the sight of Venus (Finbar Lynch) miming for the prostitute the extinction he is sure to face. A Tony nominee two years ago for “Not About Nightingales,” Lynch excels himself here, playing the corps’ agitated pragmatist: “It’ll be short,” he says, envisioning the particulars of their demise. “That’s the best to say for it.”

And with Scott’s onetime socialist, Child, leading the rancorous charge, the comic interludes often fall to Dice (Danny Sapani) — when, that is, he is not quoting from Ecclesiastes and William Blake — and Lion (Nitin Ganatra), a turban-wearing Sikh. They are the Caribbean and Asian constituents, respectively, of a unit that respects neither skin color nor class nor, for all the real camaraderie, life.

It remains the dramatic trump card of “To the Green Fields Beyond” to end not in carnage but with a sort of tragic courage, fueled by two separate but equal scenes that in a flash justify Mendes’ faith in the play. In the first, the corps pauses to listen from somewhere beyond to the sounds of passing infantry, the men’s fears allayed in a wordless moment of collective decision-making. (All credit here to John Leonard’s immensely voluble sound design.) Not long after, Ain and Child lead one last dimly lit drill, the exhilarating teamwork of the actors inseparable from that of their characters. Whitby continues on to a superfluous (and faintly sentimental) finish involving the play’s two outsiders. By then, the misstep hardly matters because “To the Green Fields” gets more difficult things right — namely, a report from the road to oblivion told as if from the inside.

To the Green Fields Beyond

Donmar Warehouse (London); 251 seats; £24 ($35) top

Production: A Donmar Warehouse presentation of a play in one act by Nick Whitby. Directed by Sam Mendes.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Anthony Ward; lighting, Howard Harrison; music, Stephen Warbeck; fights, Terry King; sound, John Leonard. Opened, reviewed Sept. 25, 2000. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast: Child - Dougray Scott Cossum - Adrian Scarborough Mo - Hugh Dancy Ain - Ray Winstone Lion - Nitin Ganatra Kirkpatrick - Paul Venables Dice - Danny Sapani The Woman - Johanna Lonsky Venus - Finbar Lynch Duff - Danny Babington Reconnaissance Officer - Gary Powell

More Legit

  • Ain't Too Proud review

    Broadway Review: 'Ain't Too Proud'

    In the wake of the long-running “Jersey Boys” and the short-lived “Summer,” director Des McAnuff is back on Broadway with another show built around the song catalog of a music act — and although “Ain’t Too Proud” has all the right sounds and slick moves, this bio-musical of the R&B vocal group the Temptations is [...]

  • 'White Noise' Theater Review: Suzan-Lori Parks

    Off Broadway Review: Daveed Diggs in 'White Noise'

    Any new play by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog / Underdog”) demands — and deserves — attention. And in its premiere production at the Public Theater, her latest, “White Noise,” opens with a burst of brainy energy that lasts through the first act. But it takes a nosedive in the sloppy second half, [...]

  • Alexander Dinelaris

    'Jekyll and Hyde' Movie in the Works Based on Broadway Musical

    The Broadway musical “Jekyll and Hyde” is getting the movie treatment from Academy Award winner Alexander Dinelaris. Dinelaris, who is writing and producing the adaptation, won an Oscar for the “Birdman” script and was a co-producer on “The Revenant.” He is producing “Jekyll and Hyde” as the first project under his New York-based development company, [...]

  • Sam Mendes

    Listen: The 'Balls-Out Theatricality' of Sam Mendes

    If you find yourself directing a Broadway play with a cast so big it includes a goose, two rabbits, more kids than you can count and an actual infant, what do you do? If you’re Sam Mendes, you embrace the “balls-out theatricality” of it all. Listen to this week’s podcast below: More Reviews SXSW Film [...]

  • James Corden Tony Awards

    James Corden to Host 2019 Tony Awards (EXCLUSIVE)

    James Corden has been tapped to once again host the Tony Awards, Variety has learned exclusively. “The Late Late Show” host previously emceed the annual theater awards show in 2016, and won the Tony for best actor in a play for his performance in “One Man, Two Guvnors” in 2012. More Reviews SXSW Film Review: 'J.R. [...]

  • Frozen review Broadway

    ‘Frozen’ the Musical Opening in London in 2020

    “Frozen” the musical is coming to London and will open in the West End in fall 2020. The Michael Grandage-directed Disney Theatrical Productions stage show has been on Broadway for a year. Grandage’s production is now set to re-open Andrew Lloyd Webber’s refurbished Theatre Royal Drury Lane. More Reviews SXSW Film Review: 'J.R. “Bob” Dobbs [...]

  • Nantucket Sleigh Ride review

    Off Broadway Review: John Guare's 'Nantucket Sleigh Ride'

    Anyone who doesn’t have a cottage on the Cape or the Islands, as they say in Massachusetts, might be puzzled by the title of John Guare’s new play.  “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” is no Revere Beach amusement park ride, but an old whaling term for the death throes of a whale that is still attached to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content