Writer: Sebastian Faulks
Adaptor: Rachel Wagstaff
Director: Alastair Whatley
Reviewer: Jennie Philpot
‘Birdsong’ is one of those novels one feels they should read as a rite of passage, a story of love, war and the turmoil of both. With such a mighty book to adapt to stage the task was always going to be a daunting one but Rachel Wagstaff has done an incredible job.
As the story unfolds it quickly becomes clear that there are two time frames running parallel to one another. One, the love story, follows Stephen (played by George Banks) before the Great War breaks out. He is sent by his guardian to stay with the Azaire family in Amiens, where he falls in love with Isabelle (Carolin Stoltz), the wife of his host. Over the course of a few weeks they have a passionate affair and, fuelled by the beatings of her husband, they decide to run away and set up a new life together.
Juxtaposed against this backdrop are the harrowing accounts of years in the tunnels and trenches. It is 1916 and all around Stephen are the sights and smells of death. Of lives given so willingly to protect King and country. This story tells of life and death decisions being made, of men giving their lives for one another and the tragic affect war has on the body, mind and soul. The two stories come to a climax when the turmoil of the past 6 years rears it’s head on the day the armistice is signed.
Two actors in particular help to make this play harrowingly real; George Banks (Stephen) and Peter Duncan (Firebrace, a miner who works alongside Stephen). Both performances are truly heart wrenching. The way Bank’s whole body and facial expression deteriorates as his hopes fade is powerful to watch. The penultimate scene in which both men find themselves in trouble, shows the shear skill of Duncan’s ability to portray the horrors of life in the tunnels.
Although the story keeps closely to the original book, one never really feels a deep yearning for the love to last between Stephen and Isabelle. We care for the characters individually but not enough time is given to developing their relationship. This is not helped by the set (Victoria Spearing), as it portrays the dirt and destruction of the Somme very well, but not the intimacy of a passionate love affair.
Lighting (Alex Wardle) and sound (Dominic Bilkey) are deployed with skill, helping to give a sense of the continual fear that surrounded those fighting. More than once the audience jumped at bombs exploding and guns being shot. It was difficult to move from such bloodshed to the sheltered life of a French town house. This was done using simple furniture and lighting, a difficult task but one that did not always do the acting justice.
This production will leave you purged of emotion. Although one does not develop a particular attachment to the love affair, we do care deeply for the men that the soldiers represent. It is a stark reminder of lives given up, of the heartbreak of war, and of the sacrifice given by so many. Lest we forget.
Photo: Jack Ladenburg | Runs until: 22nd March in Birmingham