Audience in the "Field" at the Millennium Centre, Cardiff, before a performance of the opera "In Parenthesis"

Remembering Mametz Wood

by james w thomas

The poppies were there, yes, row on row, but there in May 2016 in front of Welsh National Opera, they were blowing for the dead of Mametz Wood – and more – 923 spheres of lighted blooms, “each on a stalk and bobbing gently in the wind,” for the 923 Welsh soldiers, those with no known graves, who died in 1916 during the Battles of the Somme. 100 years later, the glowing, immersive artwork flowers of Field stood guard outside, while inside the house, an opera composed by Iain Bell, In Parenthesis, premiered.

Field, created by the art and design collective Squidsoup and commissioned by the National Opera, opened on the same night as the work adapted from an epic poem of World War I by David Jones. The number of poppies in rank and file outside the Millennium Centre in Cardiff was based on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in France – the total number of names listed, 72,246. According to the artists’ website, the work creates a place “for remembrance and contemplation …connecting the spiritual and elemental with the physical, the unseen with the seen, our past with our present.”

Pvt. Jones survived the slaughter at Mametz Wood and turned his nightmares into poetry, his 1937 seven-part epic In Parenthesis, a Welsh soldier’s saga turned into myth. Some of the men whose names are inscribed at Thiepval would have served with him in July 1916 with the 15th (1st London Welsh) Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, 38th Welsh Division (later poet Hedd Wyn’s battalion in 1917).

Librettists David Antrobus and Emma Jenkins worked from Jones’ translation of his own military experience, a break – in parenthesis – within his civilian life as an artist, a poet, and “a maker of things.” His allusions to Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll, Arthurian legend and the Biblical Book of Revelation were not easily put into lyrics. Private John Ball, the lead as Jones’ witness, hardly speaks aloud in the poem, yet hardly stops singing for the entire, two-hour opera. Finding his voice, his idiom, was part of it.

Jenkins noted, “The work is very much our response to this massive poem.” The adaptation highlights the concept of parallel worlds as the soldiers on the Western Front transform into Arthurian knights seeking the Grail. “We are not just experiencing this war, but rather all wars.” As Ball’s platoon mate Dai Greatcoat demands, the reader, the audience, ought to ask questions. “Why…what’s the meaning of this.” At Mametz, in the poem or on the stage, any meaning lives in the courage and the actions of human beings, in war, with the infantrymen, or, in British slang, the “squaddies,” and in American, the “grunts.”

Back on a classical level, poet W.H. Auden claimed that Jones did “for the British and the Germans what Homer did for the Greeks and the Trojans.” Highlights can be viewed at www.inparenthesis.org.uk, the WNO website. On a practical, theatrical level, Jenkins said that there are recognizable “bits of text” as well as “plenty of new material,” similar to another Welsh stage production.

In 2014, National Theatre Wales produced its version of the battle, Mametz, written by Welsh poet Owen Sheers and inspired by his own 2005 piece “Mametz Wood.” This site-specific work, a “Cook’s Battlefield Experience tour,” as Lyn Gardner of The Guardian put it, takes the modern audience into the physical trenches, but oddly bent by time (a journalist contemplates Einstein’s 1915 theory of relativity; a grocery shopper wanders into the battle). Also using the words of Fusilier poets Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Jones himself, Sheers has the dead arise from the earth, if only in their photographs…“As if the notes they had sung / have only now, with this unearthing,/slipped from their absent tongues.” A gallery from the NTW production is available at www.nationaltheatrewales.org/mametz.

At the tragic conclusion of In Parenthesis, only John Ball of his company remains alive in the strange realm of the Wood. The mythic Queen of the Woods has wrought destruction, but she then garlands the dead, both British and German, with flowers, bringing a promise of “regeneration and rebirth” with their melodic prayer. Director David Pountney’s evocative production of Bell’s opera dares to offer us hope.