The 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War provides a timely opportunity for the return of the acclaimed stage show of Birdsong. Based on the internationally renowned novel by Sebastian Faulks, it paints a haunting and harrowing vision of the war. From the appalling conditions in the trenches to the memories of what life was before, it weaves a complex picture of life at the time.
Stephen Wraysford is an Englishman who visits Amiens in France to learn more about the textile industry. Whilst living with the factory owner, he falls in love with the wife, Isabelle Azaire, and begins a passionate affair with her. The war intervenes and as a lieutenant in the British army, Wraysford clings to the memories of Isabelle to help him through. Wraysford has a disconnected family background which makes him a rather cold fish, studying the entrails of animals and telling fortunes, not the usual pursuits of a well educated Englishman. But he is passionate, believing in love and life over convention, and his blunt approach allows us to see things as they are and not through the lens of traditional etiquette. Tom Kay plays this part with great skill, the detachment of the soldier contrasting well with the passion and playfulness of the lover. The audience warms to him, as do the soldiers in his care, once they understand he is flesh and blood like them.
The soldiers – and sappers, who tunnel underground to try to reach the enemy lines – are a rag-tag collection of men from all walks of life and of all ages. Their individual stories are brought out – a child ill at home, a brother nearby on the front line, an underage runaway faced with horrors beyond his imagining. Each becomes a representative of the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives, each with grieving families, their own stories. There is real grit and camaraderie in these portrayals and Tim Treloar as Firebrace, a sapper, gives an emotional and impassioned performance.
The anger and outspoken emotion of the trenches is balanced by the tension and undercurrents of the unhappy home of the Azaires. Madeleine Knight as Isabelle communicates her stifled life through body language and reaction, with great subtlety. The individual relationships and their intimacy are juxtaposed with the vast scale of the inhumanity of the trenches.
This is beautifully staged, with scenes from pre-war France and the front-line interwoven, overlapping, merging into one another. A memory is provoked by a smell or an image or a word and we are transported back to another time and place. This cleverly shows the human psyche at work – and one in such extreme circumstances – how impossible it must have seemed to imagine enjoying a picnic by a river on a summer’s day, when surrounded by death and destruction. These interlaced scenes are choreographed in a sort of symphony of movement which feels like waking from a dream. The atmospheric set design by Victoria Spearing is ingenious in representing underground tunnels, the trenches, the field of war, a town, a home. The complex lighting by Alex Wardle also creates oppressive underground scenes and gives an impression of the vast landscape of war. Live music is used sparingly but draws out the emotion of the piece – resonant hymns, folk songs on violins, bawdy soldier’s tunes – and James Findlay’s playing and singing add enormously to the melancholic mood. It is a sensory feast.
The popularity of Birdsong as a novel is testament to the skill of the storytelling and the ability of Sebastian Faulks to paint a picture of the extremities of human experience. The stage show, adapted by Rachel Wagstaff and directed by Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters, captures the essence of the book and presents a lyrical ode to love, humanity and friendship through the most unimaginable horrors.
Reviewer: Kathryn McAuley.
Photos credit: Jack Ladenburg.