Interview: Sally Woodcock on bringing Journey's End to Flanders
The director on taking the classic First World War drama back to the battlefields
In 2016 Sally Woodcock had a lightbulb moment. While working as a supply teacher she was told about a First World War battlefield tour the students were undertaking. Later that evening she realised that her plans to stage a production of Journey's End could combine perfectly with the 100th anniversary commemorations in Flanders.
A swiftly arranged research trip followed, and she found to her surprise there was no theatre programme in place for the centenary on the battlefields. So she approached the tourism office in Ypres with her idea, and soon found herself with a venue.
"I couldn't believe how quickly it all came together," says Woodcock, whose career has encompassed drama teaching, journalism and playwriting. "I always had unfinished business with Journey's End. It's a play I've loved since seeing it in the West End, and the opportunity to stage it at Ypres was just so fitting."
Staged in a former ammunition store (Het Kruitmagazijn, pictured below), the production premiered last year during the 100th anniversary of Passchendaele, where Journey's End writer RC Sherriff fought. It received a five star rave in the Telegraph and an invitation was soon extended for the production to return this year (it is currently running until 12 November, the day after the 100th anniversary of the armistice).
Woodcock has been delighted by the audience response. "The production allows people to get a sense of the conflict in a way that nothing else quite does... And the play has a real universality to it. The fact the Flemish have really taken it to their hearts is proof of that."
As well as the educative benefit of staging the play, she has more personal motivations. She named her theatre company MESH as an anagram of her grandparents' initials; both her grandfathers fought in the conflict. "Stanley was Australian and had a torrid time in Gallipoli and Egypt. My other grandfather, Herbert, fought in Tanganyika and suffered huge weight loss through dysentery - I recently transcribed his war diary, which was fascinating. This production is very much a tribute to them."
Last month she staged Journey's End for an audience of soldiers at the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks. "It was a very special evening, with uniforms on stage and off," she says. The play, which is set in the trenches during 1918, resonates with soldiers partly because it is not "flagrantly anti-war", she adds, but based on real experience.
In tune with the wider commemorations, part of Woodcock's mission is to provide a reminder to the next generation of the risk of allowing history to repeat itself. She feels this is especially urgent in the climate of Brexit. But despite her own feelings she concedes that views are polarised. "For every person who thinks [the world wars] are a case for non-isolationism there's another who'll take an opposing view."
She is keen for Journey's End to have a life beyond 2018, with plans to take it to Australia and New Zealand and even the Canada and US. She is also looking at producing another play, this time set amid the Second World War. It's a long way to come in two years. And one of the best things, she says, is seeing the countless numbers of schoolchildren in the audience. "It's the chance to educate young minds that makes this so satisfying."
Journey's End is at The Gunpowder Store in Ypres until 12 November. For more information see meshtheatre.com