The success of our Grav production almost made it mandatory for me to ask Owen Thomas to write something else for the Torch. I’d always planned to do something to commemorate the centenary of the end of the first world war and this seemed to be the ideal vehicle for Owen, his poetic style seemed very apt for such an emotional subject. Initially my thoughts were to concentrate on either those shot for cowardice or on the conscientious objectors. We kicked these ideas around for a while and did lots of research, looked at a few personal stories that had been documented locally; to my mind, there was definitely a play in there – somewhere.
As it happened we were on our third tour of Grav and one particular day we rocked up to Porthcawl (as you do); it was a full house that included rugby legend Gareth Edwards, so there was a great buzz about the theatre that night. Whilst milling about the foyer, I bumped into the actor Ifan Huw Dafydd and his partner Llinos; I’d done some television with Huw but had never worked with him in the theatre. We have since established that we lived in the same house, at the same time as students, a collection of bedsits on Colum Road. We had a chat and like most actors, he informed me that he had a great idea for a play. At this point one should be honest and say, “I’m sure you have and I’m sure it’s very good but there’s no point in telling me about it as I’m not really in a position to produce anything over the next few years, have you tried the Royal Court”. Fortunately for Huw (and me), he mentioned World War One early on and so instantly got my interest; he went on to tell me a fascinating and moving story. ALL CHANGE! Over the next few weeks Huw sent Owen and I all sorts of information that he’d gleaned over the years whilst this story was brewing and developing in his head; all very useful. Huw had such a knowledge around the events which took place at Mametz Wood in 1916, that Owen and I had a great deal of catching up to do.
We quickly adapted Huw’s story into a dramatic form that would work with just two actors, whilst keeping faithful to his original idea. Owen then set about putting the flesh on the bones. As with Grav, a trip to the location where the play would be set brought huge rewards. In this case it was a journey over to France and down to Mametz; we had all made the trip but all at different times and although not planned, it was probably good that we all went independently as we all came back with different thoughts, feelings and experiences.
In my case, I had stopped off in Calais to see my daughter who was working in the refugee kitchens, serving 2500 meals per day to refugees who had fled Afghanistan and Syria. I was quickly roped in and spent three days not only preparing food but also going out into what was formerly ‘the jungle’ to distribute the food to the refugees. Seeing these poor people, victims of hideous wars, put me in a strange state of mind to then drive down to the site of a battle which claimed over 4000 Welshmen one hundred years earlier – the world has obviously never learnt from the past.
On the way to Mametz you pass countless cemeteries with rows upon rows of headstones, very striking images. Mametz is a rather beautiful little Hamlet, the wood itself is just a short distance away. I went on a very cold Sunday morning and literally didn’t see a single person all the time I was there. Walking into the wood itself made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as you see a collection of Welsh flags and photographs tied to trees. I rescued a laminated copy of Owen Sheers poem from the mud and pinned it back on a tree. There was an eerie silence punctuated only by distant gunshot, presumably a local farmer but it added to the atmosphere. Sitting on a tree stump in a wood where 4000 of your fellow countrymen had fallen, not to mention countless Germans, is an experience I’ll not quickly forget. Suddenly, the events depicted in the play all made sense and the atmosphere we were trying to create was all too evident. Amazingly, when I exited the wood after possibly just forty minutes, everything was white from a sudden heavy snowfall. It was as if the world had suddenly changed during the time I was in there.
As I drove back into Calais, I saw hundreds of wet and shivering refugees gathered under motorway bridges sheltering from the snow; despite a wonderful day. It was all too evident that the world hadn’t changed.
Torch Theatre until March 1 and then touring.
Owen Thomas talks about writing The Wood:
Review from The Torch:
THE WOOD – TOUR DATES SPRING 2018
TORCH THEATRE, MILFORD HAVEN
Tuesday 20 February – Thursday 1 March, 7.30pm | Wednesday 28 February, 2.30pm (Matinee)
01646 695267 | torchtheatre.co.uk
ROYAL WELSH COLLEGE OF MUSIC & DRAMA, CARDIFF
Friday 2 March, 7.45pm
02920 391 391 | rwcmd.ac.uk
Tuesday 6 March, 7.30pm
08452 263 510 | theatrausirgar.co.uk
THE WELFARE, YSTRADGYNLAIS
Wednesday 7 March, 7.30pm
01639 843 163 | thewelfare.co.uk
THEATR BRYCHEINIOG, BRECON
Thursday 8 March, 7.30pm
01874 611 622 | brycheiniog.co.uk
THE HAFREN, NEWTOWN
Saturday 10 March, 7.30pm
01686 614 555 | thehafren.co.uk
THEATR MWLDAN, CARDIGAN
Tuesday 13 March, 7.30pm
01239 621 200 | mwldan.co.uk
THE RIVERFRONT, NEWPORT
Wednesday 14 March, 7.30pm
01633 656 757 | newportlive.co.uk/riverfront
PONTARDAWE ARTS CENTRE, PONTARDAWE
Thursday 15 March, 7.30pm
01792 863 722 | pontardaweartscentre.com
NEWBRIDGE MEMO, NEWBRIDGE
Friday 16 March, 7.30pm
01495 243 252 | newbridgememo.co.uk
BOROUGH THEATRE, ABERGAVENNY
Tuesday 20 March, 7.30pm
01873 850 805 | boroughtheatreabergavenny.co.uk
NEUADD DWYFOR, PWLLHELI
Thursday 22 March, 7.30pm
01758 704 088
ABERYSTWYTH ARTS CENTRE, ABERYSTWYTH
Friday 23 March, 7.30pm
01970 623 232 | aberystwythartscentre.co.uk
THEATR CLWYD, MOLD
Saturday 24 March, 7.45pm
01352 701 521 | theatrclwyd.com