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.