Writer: Rachel Wagstaff, form the book by Sebastian Faulks
Director: Alastair Whatley
Reviewer: Nathanael Kent
The novel Birdsong spans three generations and over seventy years. This is all very well in that medium, but on stage significant changes in location and age can often feel dramatically awkward. It is no wonder that Sebastian Faulks compared the adaptation process to turning a painting into a sculpture.
Here, the painting in question is the story of young officer Stephen Wraysford (an excellent Jonathan Smith), whose doomed love affair with a married French woman, Isabelle Azaire, in 1910 haunts him still in the trenches of the Somme four years later.
Trevor Nunn’s original 2009 production relied heavily on the use of projection to shift between the scenes of Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation, which is also used in this more conventional staging by Alastair Whatley, which began at Basingstoke’s Haymarket in January. Wagstaff has decided to focus on the core three years of the plot and lose the straight-line narrative of the novel, which by doing so changes the dynamic of the story being told. It is no longer an epic sweep – instead, through the use of flashbacks from the trenches, more time is invested on the central love story, which should, in theory, allow for a greater depth of characterisation. Sadly though, Sarah Jayne Dunn’s Isabelle is rather one note and so her relationship with Stephen – despite the efforts of Smith – feels under developed. One cannot see what he sees in this woman.
Thanks to Victoria Spearing’s clever design, in which the distant silhouettes of crucifixes are a constant reminder of the ultimate sacrifice paid by thousands of men, Whatley’s production flows nicely and is punctuated with wartime songs and hymns, to moving effect. It boasts one particularly fine performance, too, from Tim Treloar as Jack Firebrace, a working class tunnel digger whose personal tragedy back home in England proves to be the most devastating moment of the evening. It’s a moment of startling simplicity as Firebrace reads letters to and from his wife, and Treloar avoids slipping into sentimentality.
This rawness of emotion makes for a welcome contrast to Malcolm James’ and Arthur Bostram’s caricatured Frenchmen, the latter of whom seems to have forgotten he is no longer on the set of ‘Allo ‘Allo. It is broad strokes like this which prevents this adaptation of Birdsong, certainly, from becoming a truly harrowing piece of theatre. As a play about the Great War, it cannot match the likes of R.C Sherriff’s Journey’s End, which superbly captures the monotony and absurdity of warfare, and reaches moments of shattering power. But as an adaptation of Faulks’ great novel, it’s a valiant attempt and makes for a thought provoking couple of hours.