Tuesday 13th February 2018 at West Yorkshire Playhouse
This stage version of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong is directed by Alastair Whatley with Charlotte Peters and is presented by Birdsong Productions Ltd. It’s a marathon rather than a sprint and at 80 minutes for Act 1 and 50 minutes for Act 2, it’s a production which feels Shakespearean in length. There’s great merit in working this hard to bring as much of the original text as possible to the stage but in this case, the novel is so vast that when adapted for the stage, it borders on sprawling in places. That’s not to say that the production is anything near heavily flawed – it has real drama and trauma which grips and provokes reflection on the war and its impact. Exploring the lives of those often overlooked when the war is remembered, Birdsong takes us below ground during WW1, where the tunneller ‘rats’ are digging towards the Germans and vice versa. These are men who are simple butchers, clerks or manual labourers; not trained in combat; not entirely prepared for what awaits them and not much cared about by those in charge. Alongside this is the unravelling of Stephen Wraysford’s love affair, memories of which are conjured up by his return to the area of its happening. There are moving displays of camaraderie, moments of gentle comedy and a doomed love affair to entertain in this sweeping, if a little meandering take on the hit novel.
The few references to the true horrors of war in this adaptation are best presented through Wraysford’s poetically disturbing descriptions after the battles are over and the fate of poor Tipper (Alfie Browne-Sykes) who presumably represents every young man too young to be there. But it’s an altogether muted and melancholic production which looks at war in an understated way, focusing on the men and their day to day rather than glorifying or over-dramatising the battles at hand. For the most part, this works as the relationships between the men are communicated well, inviting investment to allow for the various deaths to cause significant impact and the closing scenes are highly dramatic and emotive. But aside from some gripping moments in the tunnels, the most intense scenes throughout are reserved for the turbulent love affair between Isabelle and Stephen rather than the war scenes themselves. The narrative does frame their love affair well, allowing Wraysford’s past to interfere with his present as he lies injured, until the two rejoin for the second act. This framework allows for some slick staging as Kay rises from his sick bed to take the place of his slightly younger self in scenes of fervent love and lust. Once those flashbacks are left behind and the production moves forward chronologically though, it distinctly loses that sense of energy and variety.
Jack Firebrace, our hero of the tunnels, is perfectly played by Tim Treloar who brings to the role cockney charm, poignant focus on the individual within the masses and a pervading sense of proud stoicism. The relationship between Jack and Arthur Straw (Simon Lloyd) is heartwarming and moving in places, highlighting the importance of camaraderie when faced with burdens which would test anyone to their limits. Tom Kay is also perfectly cast as Stephen Wraysford, particularly if the intention is to present the character as bereft of sentiment for anyone outside of his infatuation with Isabelle until the closing scenes arrive. Kay’s Wraysford is intense, impersonal and bordering on robotic at times – even the shocking eruption of violence soon dissipates in a return to this cold portrayal. Isabelle Azaire is played with a doe-eyed anguish by Madeleine Knight, whose portrayal centres around tortured eyes and a sense of hopelessness which achieves considerable sympathy for the character. Riley Carter plays the quick talking Welshman Evans with humour, a mischievous twinkle and a pitiable underlying truth. But casting him as the stuttering German soldier for the highly emotional closing scenes didn’t work in favour of those latter scenes. Likewise, having Olivia Bernstone playing the young and exuberant daughter Lisette and the prostitute is jarring. It’s always a good thing when characters are distinctive of course, but the strong impression created by primary characters can cause secondary characters to fall short.
Sound design from Dominic Bilkey has birdsong and explosions intertwined throughout to remind us of the interplay between man’s folly and nature’s wisdom. There’s a similar sense of evoking those themes through Victoria Spearing’s set design which sees ruins permanently on stage with the only changes appearing through the use of a swinging door displaying crumbling ruins on one side and net curtain the other to indicate a shift indoors. Simple domestic set pieces are also carried on and off and a pub is conjured up a few times but there is no other significant change in set designs, making the production slightly static in places – not exactly out of keeping with the monotony of the war experience being portrayed, but it does make you aware of the running time when the only visual variety is the use of lighting to create windows or a simple use of the upper level for an exchange. Alex Wardle’s Lighting design (for Charcoalblue LLP) does add variety and some well placed symbolism; the explosions take on surprising colours while glaring bulbs are used to indicate the close quarters of the tunnels – most effective though is the projection of large Colonial Style windows placing the characters in personal prisons as the trials and tribulations of forbidden love play out.
Birdsong is undoubtedly an important play highlighting the lives of those who deserve more recognition and it’s worth seeing if you have an interest in war stories. It looks at war through lenses of love and loneliness as well as conflict, making the stories told personal and compelling. There are some moving scenes too, just not as many as you might expect – it is James Findlay’s melancholic singing and beautiful violin accompaniment which often tips key scenes into the emotionally affecting. But despite such strengths, the production falls short in some key areas, with the staging teetering towards soporific at times and a need for more variety of design when telling a tale with such a wide wingspan.
Birdsong plays at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until February 17th, after which it will continue to tour. You can get your tickets here.
Note: images are not of the current cast.