Portrayal of a British tank crew takes too many wrong turns

To The Green Fields And Beyond | Donmar Warehouse, London
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The Independent Culture

As gift horses go, it was a thumping great steed that galloped into Nick Whitby's life when his play, To The Green Fields And Beyond, was chosen by the Donmar chief, Sam Mendes, as the play he'd direct to mark his return to theatre after the Oscar triumph of American Beauty. But should Whitby have looked this particular mare in the proverbial mouth?

As gift horses go, it was a thumping great steed that galloped into Nick Whitby's life when his play, To The Green Fields And Beyond, was chosen by the Donmar chief, Sam Mendes, as the play he'd direct to mark his return to theatre after the Oscar triumph of American Beauty. But should Whitby have looked this particular mare in the proverbial mouth?

On one level, it is every relatively unknown writer's dream. Mendes had been scheduled to mount a production of Twelfth Night. Then Whitby's script landed on his desk and he put Shakespeare on hold. Great, except that it leaves the author exposed to the kind of media attention from which a toughened veteran might quail.

Was Mendes right, then, in training such a powerful spotlight on this work. The answer is a pretty clear "no". Set in the closing weeks of the Great War, To The Green Fields And Beyond pulls off, for all its heavily researched realistic detail, the dubious trick of being, in essence, a "feel good" portrait of a British tank crew on the eve of battle. This is a pity because it approaches the subject from potentially interesting angles.

It must, for example, be the first play about the Great War in which a soldier, out near the front, has claimed that "we are at the gates of a better world". These are the paradoxical words of Dougray Scott's Lieutenant Child, a left-wing Scot and former schoolteacher. Amid all the horror, he feels a kind of optimism about the huge advances in technology that this conflict has brought about and a pride in being part of the new élite. The solidarity of his platoon, which has helped him survive against the odds, also hints at a socialist future. And, true to the actual constitution of some of these tank corps, Whitby's play includes a West Indian and an Indian soldier.

Mendes' atmospheric production, set among moonlit birch trees, has a fine emotional director. But he cannot stop the proceedings from coming perilously close to the rainbow sentimentality of an "I'd like to teach the world to sing..." Coke advert. The crucial debate among the men about whether to duck the battle next day is softened by the fact that you never really believe that Whitby will risk forfeiting a heart-tugging close. And the dramatist makes life easy for himself with a suspicious, crudely characterised American spy, posing as a journalist, whose cynical view of Tommy platoons the men can systematically contradict.

Keats said that we were right to dislike art that has "palpable designs on us". He would have loathed this piece, with its one-dimensional Belgian prostitute who is glad to do her bit for the war effort, its trowelled on "endearing" slang and its forced allusions to Blake, the Bible et al.

Actors of the calibre of Ray Winstone and Finbar Lynch lend their distinction to a play that does not deserve it. One hopes that Mendes chooses his next film project more discerningly.

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