Writer: Sebastian Faulks
Adaptor: Rachel Wagstaff
Director: Alistair Whatley
Reviewer: Luke Walker
With the centenary of the outbreak of the ‘Great War’ approaching, Sebastian Faulks’s highly acclaimed 1993 novel, Birdsong, about the horrors of trench warfare may well have resurgence in the bookshops throughout the country. It is at least a decade since I read and it remains an unforgettable piece of literature. Adaptations of novels with over 500 pages are always going to be tricky and Rachel Wagstaff discovered this at the highest level in 2010 when Trevor Nunn’s West End production was tepidly received. The BBC’s screen adaptation only few months ago didn’t fare much better. Now, Original Theatre Company’s production, with a tinkered version by Rachel Wagstaff, takes up the mantle and the result is terrific.
The adaptation spans eight years between 1910-8 and traverses the mixed fortunes of Stephen Wraysford (Johnathan Smith). Half love tale and half war strewn terror, Birdsong is difficult and jarring – crisscrossing a limbo between heaven and hell on earth. When Wraysford is sent to France before the war he falls in love with and begins an affair with the married Isabelle Azaire (Sarah Jayne Dunn). This forms the back story to the hellish Western Front when Wraysford returns to France, as a Lieutenant, to command his men at the disastrous Battle of the Somme and finally go on an almost suicidal mission with the sappers (miners employed to dig tunnels for explosives).
The adaptation and the direction brilliantly meld the different time frames together. Alistair Whatley’s direction allows the action to move deftly between scenes and time zones. There is no episodic structure to the play, rather the action in 1916 and 1918 flashes back and forth to 1910 with effortless ease creating a sort of memory play. Consequently, scenes that are chapters apart in the novel take on amplified resonance when butted up together – we are introduced to Isabelle when Wraysford ‘comes back to life’ “like bleedin’ Lazarus”. And when Isabelle’s domineering husband Azaire (Malcolm James) exclaims, as she leaves him, “If you are going with him, you are going to hell!” we are immediately transported to the trenches as the men tremble before they go over the top on the morning of the Somme.
Victoria Spearing’s multi layered set is outstanding. In a blink of an eye we are taken from drawing rooms, to taverns, to trenches and tunnels. Dominic Bilkey’s sound design seems constantly seems to rumble as the shells land in the distance – only have the desired effect of keeping the audience jumping at the louder explosions – and Alex Wardle’s dim lighting design can transform a entire front half of a stage into a claustrophobic tunnel. The production values are far and above that of any ordinary touring play.
As the protagonist Johnathan Smith has a colossal task. Despite a cast twelve he is onstage for most of the two and a half hours. For the main he holds the stage well. However, at times, he was allowed to slip into melodrama and he often lacked the subtlety required for more emotional lines or the recalling of harrowing events. As the love of his life Sarah Jayne Dunn was able to convey her dilemma at being trapped. But, unfortunately, the passion we were supposed to witness between the couple seemed to be limited to a strangely choreographed balletic love-making scene. The rest of the cast comfortably doubled or tripled the many rôles and worked together as a fluid ensemble. As Jack Firebrace, Tim Treloar gave an exceptional performance as a broken man, trying to deal with the death of his young son.
Although with its faults, Wagstaff’s adaptation is very intelligent. It has some clunky exposition, a little too much narration and becomes slightly preachy towards the end. The programme notes refer to it like turning a painting into a sculpture. She has succeeded and so has the cast and company. This is a very fine production indeed. You’ll wake up to the birdsong in the morning with a new-found appreciation.