The centenary of the ending of the Great War has prompted many tributes, some more meritorious than others. The eponymous novel, by Sebastian Faulks, first published in 1993, has established itself as a modern classic, a love story set against the backcloth of war, where the omnipresent threat of death heightens human’s search for love, and loss is only a rifle shot or shell blast away. Stephen Wraysford, who arrived first as a textile industrialist, returns as a British officer, taking his men over the top at the Somme, injured in a field hospital.
A weighty novel always poses a page to stage challenge. As it is, the production runs to two and a half hours. Flashbacks are used extensively by adapter Rachel Wagstaff to fill in the narrative gaps, a device used with uneven, and narrative slowing, effect. Wagstaff impressively gained Faulk’s support, endorsement and involvement in this adaptation, which does not rely upon the audience having read the book.
For scenery, a trench, ladders, and tunnels cutaway, dominates the stage. Before the War, Wraysford, had engaged in a passionate and dangerous affair with the beautiful Isabelle Azaire. After war breaks out, he must lead his men into the carnage of the Battle of the Somme, and through the sprawling tunnels that lie deep underground. Credit is due to Victoria Spearing’s authentic and convincing set, overlaid with Dominic Bilkey’s soundscape, and Alex Wardle’s clever lighting. Music and songs are also powerfully deployed, courtesy of James Findlay, not least in the moving scene when the troops are writing what they know are likely to be their last letters home. Confronted with the ghastly tableau of war, Wraysford holds the memories both of his affair with Isabelle, and his untroubled life before, tight, as he tries to survive the maelstrom.
The flashbacks can sometimes teeter on the absurd, rather than the dream like. But Tom Kay works hard to offer a poignant compelling performance of Wraysford’s fragile mental state. Yet it is the vox pops of the ordinary protagonists which resonate. A sapper, Tipper, choosing to take his own life rather than let someone else do it, personifies the tragic tradition of a man who cannot escape his fate. A Private borrows from the “Inbetweeners” tradition in a portrayal of sexual bravado, seemingly emulating Wraysford’s exploits, which in truth, amount to nothing. Madelaine Knight effortlessly oozes sex appeal as textile heiress Isabelle Azaire
Wagstaff has succeeded in producing a play which stands, and breathes, in its own right. Although the audience was dominated by female aficionados of the book, those who had not seen it expressed no difficulty in appreciating the story, driven by Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters’ creative direction. A fine response to a powerful moment in history. Birdsong runs until Saturday 16th, then continues on tour.