To say that Owen Sheers and the National Theatre of Wales have some history would be an understatement. Their last collaboration, The Passion, not only garnered rave reviews from critics, it also made a whole town a theatre, its people its players. What strikes me as I speak to Sheers about the forthcoming Mametz, the latest collaboration between writer and theatre company, is that the motivation for the project isn’t merely trying to recreate a successful formula. There are more important issues at stake. There are voices to be heard. Voices we all need to hear.
It’s easy to be swept along by the writer’s enthusiasm as he speaks about the production which will be performed in woodland somewhere near Usk. “When I took the idea to the National Theatre of Wales, they didn’t blink,” he tells me. He believes that “We’re very very lucky” to have such a creative company who not only took on board his ideas but also added to them, a company “who develop creative spaces, site-specific plays which are community-based.”
Mametz refers to Mametz Wood, the location where 4,000 Welsh soldiers lost their lives during the First Battle of the Somme in World War I. The writer first visited to research the lives of two Welsh poets who fought there, Llewelyn Wyn Griffith and David Jones, a poet who Sheers regards as “up there with Sassoon and Owen.” While he was there a grave was discovered containing a number of soldiers linked arm in arm. “The image stuck” says Sheers. It led to a poem but the poem is only a fragment of what inspired what is sure to be one of the most talked-about plays of the year.
Sheers is no stranger to writing about war. His radio play in verse giving voice to three soldier friends in Afghanistan, Pink Mist, has recently been nominated for the Welsh Book of the Year. His play, The Two Worlds of Charlie F, used interviews with veterans as the basis for the production. When I ask him about his interest in the subject there is a hint of sadness in his voice. “All my writing life has run exactly parallel with wars which we’re still fighting” and he’s worried that we’ve “become desensitized to war” and that as a writer he feels the need to “bring these issues closer to home.”
The centenary of World War I seems to be only one element of the play therefore. “It’s important to commemorate” he says, “but the past can make it safe. We’ve got to realise that it’s still happening. Things haven’t changed. Wales makes up 5% of the British population, yet we make up about 8% of the armed forces. However we remember we mustn’t forget that the narrative hasn’t changed.”
Sheers says that he follows in the tradition of a poet like Wilfred Owen who wrote that all poetry can do is warn. “No one likes a piece of writing that wags its finger at you from the page. The work of the writer is to present.” It seems a far cry from those politicians who have been battling to claim what the real lessons we must learn were from the events of a century ago.
The writing is only one part of a play, of course. Working with the director Matthew Dunster to bring the words to life, Sheers is again genuinely excited about what the National Theatre of Wales is doing with what he’s written, “I can’t say too much but having heard their plans I think it could be an unique experience, right up there with The Passion.” Indeed, he is excited by what the company offers, “Writing is a solitary business. It’s lovely then to throw yourself into theatre which is fluid, social and exciting. It’s exciting not to be limited by set, stage or anything else.”
What strikes me about Sheers, whether in his poetry, prose or on stage (or forest, if you wish!) is that he gives voice to people. Ordinary people, people like us. People who often have no voice or whose voice isn’t being heard. It’s no wonder that those attending his plays have not been the typical audience you’d expect at the theatre.
His poem, Mametz Wood ends with the image of those skeletons in the grave, arms linked, who were only with the unearthing of their bones able to sing their songs. Those are the voices he wants to hear, “If we’re going to commemorate, if we’re going to have a centenary, let’s hear from those young lads from Snowdon, Monmouthshire, the valleys. Let’s give those soldiers their space.” As the past informs the present, so those voices might inform our futures.
The mixture of Sheers’ way with words, the National Theatre of Wales’ ability to make theatre fresh and exciting, the boundaries of stage and audience being broken along with the reasonably priced tickets make this production seem essential. I, for one, am enchanted by Sheers’ enthusiasm, longing to hear those voices brought to life and to hear what they have to say.
Mametz is performed between 24th June – 5th July in Great Llancayo Upper Wood, near Usk. More information and tickets can be found on the NTW website at http://nationaltheatrewales.org/mametz#
You can read Owen Sheers’ poem ‘Mametz Wood’ here: http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/mametz-wood/