Writer: Sebastian Faulks
Adapation: Rachel Wagstaff
Directors: Alistair Whatley/Charlotte Peters
Reviewer: Dawn Smallwood
Birdsong first opened in London’s West End in 2010 to much acclaim and subsequently, went on a UK tour from 2013-15. Birdsong is currently embarking on another tour during 2018 and is stopping at many venues including York’s Theatre Royal.
Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong (1993) is adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff, who has recently been involved as a co-adapter for the recent staging of The Girl on the Train at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The story, based on Faulks’ novel, is set in Amiens, Northern France, and is at the height of the First World War between 1916-18, just before the Battle of the Somme. It is about Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay); a solider based on the front line and falls in love with Isabelle Azaire (Madeleine Knight), a local woman trapped in a loveless marriage.
Wraysford (Kay) meets Isabelle (Knight) prior to the First World War in 1910 when he stayed with the family. The story moves back and forth to their forbidden passionate affair when he leads his fellow soldiers during the Battle of Somme through its trenches and tunnels. Looking at flashbacks of his past, Wraysford hopes to be reunited with Isabelle after the battle and gives him the resilience, hope and the strength to continue fighting. Birdsong offers the opportunity for all the other characters including other soldiers to personally share first hand their war experiences and the horrors and complexities it brings. Instead of the patriotic propaganda that the Government had traditionally filtered through during the First World War, this production looks at personal human experiences in extraordinary circumstances.
Victoria Spearing’s stunning still set is the perfect backdrop for such a story to be told. The staging, complimented with Alex Wardle’s subtle lighting, is poignantly atmospheric with Dominic Bilkey’s contrasting loud warfare soundscapes. The lighting and sounds are not overly sombre as it sensitively encapsulates the personalities of the soldiers and the community whose livelihoods are continuously affected by war. The moving solo violin music, played by James Findlay, reflects such human emotions and reflections.
The cast portrays very well the characters, some doubling up, and especially the chemistry between Wraysford and Isabelle (Kay and Knight). Credit must be fully given to Wagstaff for making Birdsong a well thought out and planned production, with support from Whatley and Peters who directs this current production. The characters are the heart of the story, and no compromises are made in this adaptation. To coincide with the marking of the 100th Anniversary of the First World War’s ending, the primary emphasis is on the human’s spirit; that of courage, love (and being loved), sacrifice and betrayal, giving one more grounds to lest we forget. Birdsong is a poignantly moving theatrical production which Wagstaff continuously develops and is definitely recommended to go and see.
Reviewed on 5 June 2018 | Image: Contributed