A novel of enduring love set amidst the horrors of the First World War, Birdsong has now been adapted into a ‘moving’ stage play. Jade Wimbledon reviews.
Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong is a lengthy, intricate, and well-loved novel. Translating it into a stage production, therefore, poses a monumental challenge. Focusing unflinchingly on World War One, the story follows soldier Stephen Wraysford before and during his life as a wartime lieutenant.
The book moves between time periods, and Rachel Wagstaff’s stage version employs a similar device, intercutting between trench scenes and Stephen’s pre-war life in a sun-soaked part of northern France. The subtle set shifts – curly wrought-iron chairs enter for the pre-war scenes – and the simultaneous proximity and distance of the two worlds is emphasised with the single set of the stage production.
We follow Stephen’s developing love affair with Isabelle, the wife of his ill-tempered employer in France, and then witness him leading his men in battle some years later: he’s now hardened, dispassionate and grimly committed to the war effort. Edmund Wiseman does a decent job as Stephen Wraysford, although dialogue feels a little wooden in some of the early scenes, and at times the interactions between the wartime men are unconvincing. As momentum starts to build, the play comes into its own, and scenes in which the soldiers and tunnellers write and receive letters from home are well-choreographed and poignantly acted.
One soldier, played by James Findlay, punctuates moments with violin-accompanied folk songs, which add a haunting beauty as he stands at the top of the trench with the wooden crosses silhouetted behind him. A special mention should also go to Peter Duncan, who plays the loveable tunneller Jack Firebrace. Peter is a former Blue Peter presenter and a veteran actor, and he brings home some of the most moving moments of the play, such as the letter from Jack’s wife that reveals the death of his young son, and his ill-fated time in the tunnel with Stephen.
Much of the wartime action, in fact, takes place underground. We get an insight into the lives of the tunnellers in the war, many of whom had mining backgrounds and were responsible for detonating explosives beneath enemy trenches. The actors convincingly convey the cramped, claustrophobic conditions. Above ground, we see the moment before the soldiers go ‘over the top’ – backs to the audience, steeling themselves for what’s ahead – allowing us a glimpse into the fear and bravery of these men who gave their lives.
The female characters don’t have much opportunity to shine or to develop into full-bodied, sympathetic figures in this drama. Their roles are mainly confined to pencilling in Stephen’s backstory, so although you might become attached to Isabelle and Stephen’s relationship, you’re unlikely to become attached to Isabelle as a character in her own right.
Isabelle’s sister Jeanne is similarly shadowy, and her early conversation with Stephen is somewhat stilted. This helps to detract from the impact of the ending. But then again, there aren’t supposed to be satisfying endings to the bloody, muddy, gruesome desperation of the frontline.
It’s impossible to capture the depth and breadth of five hundred pages of dense writing into the length of a play, but what you can hope to capture is some kind of essence of the book. As a teenager, I read Birdsong in a camper-van driving around France, trying to imagine trenches and barbed wire criss-crossing the peaceful French countryside. An acute sense of the desperation and suffering of the war, and the grit and smell of the trenches and tunnels, has stayed with me ever since.
As the curtain went down on Birdsong at the Ashcroft Theatre I felt like the play had succeeded in distilling this essence, and in communicating some of the visceral war-horror of the book. Although not a flawless production, perhaps the achievement of this alone means that the play can be deemed a success.
Birdsong’s run in Croydon ended on the 7th of February, but it continues its tour around the country and the following dates are coming up in London and the southeast:
@ The Yvonne Arnaud
16th Mar – 21st Mar
@ Richmond Theatre
29th June – 4th July
Images: Amanda Malpass PR