As the first stage play that Sam Mendes has directed since his Oscar-winning success with his debut film American Beauty, To the Green Fields Beyond was always going to attract enormous attention. Add to that a cast including Ray Winstone and Dougray Scott, fresh from his own Hollywood success as the Mission Impossible baddie, and this Donmar ditty spells hit all over. Nick Whitby, the virtually unknown playwright, must be thanking his lucky stars.
Set on the evening before a battle in 1918, the story concerns a British tank crew in the final hours before facing what they know to be certain death. Observed by a visiting American journalist and a Belgian prostitute, the men tussle with their demons. Will they carry out their duty as soldiers and forge on regardless or manufacture an equipment breakdown that would allow them to live and fight another day?
Whitby's script explores some interesting historical and moral issues. The First World War was the last real old-style war and, even then, signs of the mechanised future were evident. Armoured tanks represented that future and the increasing necessity for brains over mere brawn on the battlefield. Crews were recruited from pools of skilled mechanics and drivers from all over the British Empire, including the West Indies and the Indian sub-continent - some of the Army's first multi-racial units.
Many involved believed that the tanks also represented an end to warfare in general - so terrible was the destruction they wrought that only peace could follow this Armageddon. While in hindsight, this view was all-too obviously naïve, it does raise opportunities for some compelling dialogue amongst Whitby's characters about the holy nature of war.
But, more compellingly, what the scenario cooks up in Green Fields is an opportunity for some fine ensemble acting in the portrayal of the almost mystical camaraderie that develops between men in such situations. There isn't a weak link in the cast. Scott seethes as the reluctant officer of the crew, and Winstone is touching as the driver desperate to conceal from the others how often he messes himself. Finbar Lynch's Venus, whose burden it is to roll the deciding dice for life or death, also lingers in the memory.
Anthony Ward's superb night-time forest setting, with trees that cover the stage and reach up to the rafters, matches the quiet, watchful mood of the cast perfectly.
Mendes has chosen another project well and shows here, if there were any doubt, that his time behind the camera hasn't dimmed his theatrical powers one jot. Whitby must be thanking his lucky stars indeed for such a fine realisation of his story. Of course, it seems somewhat pointless to tell you this since, sad to say for those who don't have tickets yet, the production is already sold out. Cross your fingers for a transfer.