A har­row­ing jour­ney into trench war­fare

Hope­fully we’ve hu­man­ised some­thing that is usu­ally only read about.

The Press - - Entertainment - James Croot james.croot@stuff.co.nz

Only the ca­ma­raderie of his fel­low cast­mates kept Toby Jones from be­ing over­whelmed on the set of Jour­ney’s End.

The 52-year-old Bri­tish ac­tor plays C Com­pany chef Ma­son in the World War I drama, adapted from for­mer army of­fi­cer Robert Cedric Sherriff’s much-ad­mired 1928 play of the same name.

Set in the French trenches dur­ing the fi­nal spring of the war, it de­tails the grow­ing ten­sion among the men as they wait for a seem­ingly in­evitable Ger­man of­fen­sive.

In or­der to repli­cate the ex­pe­ri­ence for the ac­tors and the au­di­ence, di­rec­tor Saul Dibb (The Duchess) and his team cre­ated a pur­pose-built set in a stu­dio in Wales and took ad­van­tage of one English farmer’s unique fix­ture.

‘‘There’s a guy in Ip­swich, East Anglia, who has a per­ma­nent set of trenches in his fields,’’ Jones says on the phone from the United King­dom. ‘‘I think that’s a very wise move, given how of­ten dra­mas take place in trenches or need a trench. It’s not an ex­ten­sive net­work, but cer­tainly enough to film a film like this.

‘‘For the in­ter­nals, we had this amaz­ing war­ren of a set. It was just fan­tas­tic, when you are play­ing a thing like this, to be able to dis­ap­pear into a sort of cave-like world. It re­ally helps the imag­i­na­tion be­cause it’s not three-sided, it’s lit­er­ally four­sided – you are com­pletely sur­rounded.’’

As a late ar­rival to the shoot, Jones missed out on a WWI ‘‘boot camp’’ with his­to­rian Sir An­thony Sel­don, how­ever, he be­lieves that when­ever you are do­ing a war film of any kind there is a ‘‘cer­tain amount of drill to be learned. Even in Dad’s Army [Jones played Cap­tain Main­war­ing in the 2016 bigscreen ver­sion of the beloved Bri­tish sit­com] that was the case, be­cause the drama [or com­edy] lies in the break­ing down of or­der.’’

But while struck by the set­ting and the play’s sense of claus­tro­pho­bia and ago­ra­pho­bia, Jones says there was such a sense of team spirit among the act­ing en­sem­ble (that also in­cluded Paul Bet­tany, Asa But­ter­field and Sam Claflin) that he was able to avoid tak­ing home any emo­tional bag­gage from the role.

‘‘There was a sense of pro­tect­ing each other. Where you have more trou­ble re­triev­ing your day-to-day life is when you’re the only char­ac­ter in a lead role. When you’re be­ing sub­merged in a fic­tional re­al­ity for weeks and weeks, it usu­ally takes a cou­ple of days to re­cover. Here, the struc­ture was such

that I didn’t have that prob­lem.

‘‘I think we all felt that the more tragic the script be­came, the more we would pro­tect our­selves with hu­mour.’’

But Jones also ad­mits that they were care­ful not to fall into a Black­ad­der Goes Forth-es­que par­ody of the war (Jones’ char­ac­ter and his strug­gles to cre­ate ‘‘yel­low soup’’ and ‘‘onion tea’’ for his col­leagues does come dan­ger­ously close to the beloved sit­com’s Baldrick).

‘‘I think that was a dan­ger for all of us. In try­ing to imag­ine how peo­ple would be­have in what seems like a sui­ci­dal sit­u­a­tion, it is very easy to fall into par­ody be­cause it’s so hard to un­der­stand. In a way you can’t un­der­stand it re­ally, you just have to trust the voice of the play and the screen­play.’’

As for play­ing a chef, Jones says while he’s only a ba­sic cook him­self, it is al­ways great to have ‘‘some­thing to do’’ in a part.

‘‘It takes the heat off you. You can act through move­ment as much as the way you are speak­ing. I of­ten pre­fer con­cen­trat­ing on a task to words and, here, I was en­cour­aged to in­vent a kind of silent pres­ence within the film.’’

Look­ing for­ward to see­ing Sir Peter Jack­son’s doc­u­men­tary on the ex­pe­ri­ences of Bri­tish WWI sol­diers (They Shall Not Grow Old, see re­view at right), Jones says there def­i­nitely seems to be a sense of re-ex­am­in­ing that pe­riod in the lead-up to this week­end’s Ar­mistice Day cen­te­nary com­mem­o­ra­tions.

‘‘It is hard to get your head around the cul­ture that ex­isted be­fore and dur­ing the con­flict, be­cause that sense of duty and hon­our – def­er­ence even – seems so much to have been killed off by that war.’’

Say­ing he would love to come back to New Zealand for a film, theatre or tele­vi­sion pro­ject (he per­formed his Wanted Man play here back at the NZ Fes­ti­val in 2002), Jones hopes that, as with any act­ing job, Jour­ney’s End gives view­ers a win­dow into what the char­ac­ters’ lives might have been like.

‘‘Like any piece of drama, you hope that even if view­ers are shocked or up­set, they feel maybe a more di­rect em­pa­thy for the day-to-day ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in a sit­u­a­tion like that.

‘‘Hope­fully we’ve hu­man­ised some­thing that is usu­ally only read about.’’

Jour­ney’s End (M) is screen­ing in cin­e­mas now.

Toby Jones im­mersed him­self in the role of C Com­pany chef Ma­son.

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