Now in the final week of its critically acclaimed tour, Rachel Wagstaff’s stage adaptation of Birdsong will be running at Richmond theatre until 4th July. Based on the hugely successful and much loved novel by Sebastian Faulks, the play navigates the murky waters of love, honour and memory amongst the all-consuming deathly terrain of WW1. The Somme is revisited, traumas old and new are relived and flashbacks of loved ones become lucid and feverish dreams of a life once lived.
In Faulks’ novel emotion is visceral, romantic and gritty; the sentiments of which lend themselves perfectly to the play. This is despite Faulk’s own initial reservation quoted in the programme regarding a stage adaptation, “Why try to make a painting from a sculpture?” However, Rachel’s scripted version emerges as an important piece coinciding with the centenary of WW1. It poignantly investigates what it felt like, or meant, to be an individual caught up in the war.
The love story of Stephen and Isabelle and their initial meeting in France forms a smaller part of the revised plot than the novel, yet the portrayal of their relationship is equally moving. Stephen is recklessly honest when he falls in love; a naive counterpart to the wiser and older Isabelle played beautifully by Emily Bowker. Fast forwarding to the war when Stephen is a military man and innocence or curiosity is no longer permitted; the play unravels memory to interrogate the lessons of war and the concept of identity in oppression and loneliness.
This is the focus of Birdsong in the theatre, the war and conflicting or idealised notions of duty. Peter Duncan (Jack Firebrace) and Liam McCormick (Arthur Shaw) are outstanding in their heart breaking portrayal of friendship and loyalty in the trenches, going ‘over the top’ moves many members of the audience to tears. In a wider comment on history the play reflects on how close to home the tragedy of war is, or was, for so many people. We are put in mind of the people in our own lives and the stark reality that every man in war is something to someone; brother, son, husband, lover, Father or friend. This is where the show is most powerful as Faulks’ and Wagstaff’s vision of the individual in the web of history is profoundly brought to life.
The stage space at Richmond theatre is small and fittingly the set design is simple and atmospherically sparse. Giant crosses with barbed wire are strewn at the back, in front of a blue sky changing in tone throughout the play. The cacophony of the war takes shape through air siren and artillery sounds, intrusively alarming across the theatre adding to the claustrophobic theme of the narrative. Song is a central part of this production; marching soldiers to the front line and mourning the loss of lives. Musician James Findlay (playing Cartwright) gives exceptional performances at times when the debris of war requires no dialogue.
This is a beautiful play that compliments the novel with a cast who have immense energy and talent. Unlike so many other scripts adapted from novels which are often devised posthumously, Wagstaff and Faulks have collaborated on this project together. Commenting on adapting the work of a living author, Wagstaff has said, “Sebastian somehow struck the perfect balance, responding when asked for advice but never interfering!” As for Faulks, he is optimistic and to the delight of fans of his incredibly gifted writing, he brilliantly treads the boards himself in some of the performances playing the role of a sapper (tunneler) named Wheeler.
Photos courtesy of Jack Ladenburg
By Tara Flynn