Rachel Wagstaff’s stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong was performed at the West End in 2010, and first toured in 2013. Yet when telling people I was going to see it at the theatre, I was met with questions such as “how are they going to manage that?” The answer: surprisingly well, and with great sensitivity appropriate to the upcoming centenary of the end of the First World War.
While Wagstaff’s adaptation is a notably compacted version of the novel, it remains a successful tribute nonetheless. We are met with a diverse mix of characters, each inhabiting their own worlds of tribulation, who desperately clutch at the intimate connections they forge in the furnaces of war.
At first, the popular love story between Stephen (Tom Kay) and Isabelle (Madeleine Knight) feels rather banal, however there are some pleasingly nuanced developments that add a touch of reality to the otherwise whirlwind romance. Kay makes for a convincingly arrogant young pup, offering liberation to Knight’s stifled and maltreated housewife, his brash naivety obscuring her attempts at a more considered approach to their burgeoning affair.
Unfortunately, Kay’s performance struggles somewhat with the more emotionally visceral aspects of his character when recounting all that he witnesses as a soldier, which is disappointing. Similarly, the (at times) wandering accents from most members of the cast occasionally lends an unintentional comic effect, which undermines some of the more tragic scenes.
Nonetheless, sweet, strong, sorrowful Jack (Tim Treloar) redresses the balance with his devastatingly human attempts to retain his cheerful outlook under the gruelling circumstances of war. The tender exchanges with his friend Arthur (Simon Lloyd) are undoubtedly the most poignant scenes throughout the play; it is a compelling actor indeed who can leave one smiling through tears.
Such vulnerability, but also the strength of humanity, is beautifully emphasised through the performance of various folk songs that James Findlay leads with his masterful violin and lyrical voice, another score of which Tim Van Eyken should be proud. Olivia Bernstone’s portrayal of Lisette also contributes to the complexity of the human experience shown, with just the right amount of light-hearted relief in stark contrast to her performance as a stoic prostitute.
Meanwhile, the set is an artistic triumph that cannot be commended highly enough. Dramatically imposing, it requires only the slightest adjustment for scene changes, which ensures there is no distraction when signifying the smooth transition from real time of the play to the hauntings of memory, and back again. It is at once evocative of rural wartime France, and the demoralising gloom of the trenches, with a stunning use of lighting resulting in poetic silhouettes that are powerfully immersive.
Effortlessly flitting between imagination and reality, the overwhelming theme that pervades the production is survival. It’s survival in the bleakness of the human condition, when the crevices of the mind offer coveted refuge and maddening torment in equal measure. The final tour of Birdsong captures this dreadful consequence of war successfully and succinctly, and reminds us of the vitality of every individual’s story in humanity’s perhaps darkest hour.
All images from www.birdsongthetour.com