From the Front line – 18/05/2014

ADing Johnnny Got His Gun

It was a warm Thursday evening in late March and I had managed to steal a few rare moments to go and enjoy a pint with my brother by the river in a beer garden in sunny Cambridgeshire. We sat down and started chatting when I looked at my phone and saw that David Mercatali was ringing. David is someone whom I have a great deal of respect for and have developed a good relationship with since working with him on Black Jesus at the Finborough Theatre in October of last year. “Hello mate, David here. Listen, I am looking for an AD for Johnny Got His Gun at the Southwark this year and wondered if you would be interested?” Interested? Of course I was. I had obviously heard that David was doing it and furthermore, the First World War is a particular area of interest of mine. After finishing my attachment at the Finborough as the Resident Assistant Director, I had said ‘no more assisting’ but the prospect of working with David again on a show like this was something I couldn’t turn down. After reading it, I knew I had to do it.

What I found particularly striking about the piece was that Johnny’s case was not uncommon. There were vast advances in medical science during The First World War; ‘quality of life’ was barely even a concept at this time and instead it was purely about keeping people alive. Injured soldiers became the guinea pigs to medical science as surgeons tried and sampled new techniques. But what constitutes being ‘alive’? Breathing? Sure. But there is a difference between that and living. What happens to a man when he is completely withdrawn from the world around him? A man with no limbs or senses, except for the feeling of the skin on his forehead, is left only with his thoughts. And from these thoughts we see Joe ‘live’ as best as he can. He recalls some wonderful, happy memories and equally some much darker ones too from his time on the Front Lines. The most interesting aspect of this for me is that even though Joe is physically incapacitated, his mind is as active and vivid as it has ever been. I find this both comforting and disconcerting in equal measures. And so Joe must go on a voyage of discovery to find a way to connect with the world around him. 

The play is one of the strongest anti-war pieces I have ever read. Joe went to war in August of 1918, aged 20. By the September he was a quadruple amputee with no face. The play ends in the December of 1918 - nobody has even told him the war has ended. How could they when they are unable to communicate with him? America was not a superpower before the First World War as it is now. They had just fought the Mexican War of Independence, which concluded in 1898, and were left with no money and few resources. They had only two ships, no air force and an army of a little over 100,000. It was not in their interest to enter the war in Europe. However, after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, pressure was being put on the American government to intervene (some even wanted to go to war against Britain due to the way they had treated the Irish at the Easter Uprising at the GPO in Dublin in 1916). But after British intelligence intercepted a telegram from Germany to Mexico, in which they promised to distribute more territory to them if they joined them in the war, the Americans had no choice but to join forces with Britain and France. America, however, had not learnt the lessons which other nations had at the start of the war. Their tactics were outdated and they were naive in many respects to trench warfare. As a result, the Americans suffered heavy losses and only really won the war through sheer attrition. By the time of the Spring Offensive in 1918, 10,000 American troops were landing in France every day and they were arriving quicker than the Germans could replenish their losses. And so, we begin to gain a better understanding of Joe. As a 20 year old man, he would have been rushed through training to get to war and probably would have had very little interest or idea as to why he was fighting. To have your life ripped apart in one short month, the question begs: was it all worth it? And indeed, Joe questions the meaning of the term ‘liberty’ in the play. The sad fact is that Joe was just one of hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were silenced either through injury or death.  One of many who never got to tell their story. “What would the dead guys say?” asks Joe at the end of the play. It is an interesting question.

The process has been one of the most focussed I have been involved in and I think that stems from the sense of responsibility we all feel to do not just Joe, but the many other soldiers who suffered a similar fate, justice. With regards to the storytelling, we must work to identify three different ‘states’: Joe’s thoughts, Joe’s memories and the live moments in his hospital bed. Obviously, these are physicalised in different ways but it is ultimately about points of focus, different intentions and being active in every moment. David’s main note is always ‘feel it, let it come to you, be there’. The truth comes from honouring each moment. Furthermore, it makes the performance much more fluid, natural and engaging to watch. I have also run exercises where Jack Holden is completely covered from head-to-toe and left only with his thoughts as we try to simulate Joe’s situation as best as we can. It is scary how accurate Donald Trumbo and Bradley Rand-Smith are in their exploration of the natural progression of thoughts. 

As we near opening night, I am tremendously excited about showing it to the public. Jack is producing a phenomenal performance under the talented and focussed guidance of David Mercatali and it is a pleasure to work with these two tremendously talented gentlemen and an honour to be a part of this project. Producing work like this is not only meed and right, but a bounden duty.