There have been a wide variety of artistic performances marking the centenary of the First World War in recent years. They all remember the horrors that young men faced on the front line and Birdsong is no exception. Based on the best-selling novel by Sebastian Faulks, Rachel Wagstaff’s award-winning adaptation, directed by Alistair Whatley and Charlotte Peters, showcases the atrocities of war and does not hide how they devastated lives on and away from the battlefield.
The play’s central action takes place in the trenches of World War I around the Battle of the Somme. Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay) leads his men through the carnage of the war, experiencing life on the front line and in the labyrinthine tunnels below. Scenes of death and devastation are interrupted with flash-backs to Stephen’s earlier life in pre-war France, where he enters into a love affair with the beautiful Isabelle Azaire (Madeleine Knight). Both worlds collide in a shocking turn of events which demonstrates the atrocities of war were not isolated to the battlefields, and its reach was widespread and unforgiving
As an adaptation, the play translates the book into the medium of theatre superbly. Some of the best aspects of the story can only be achieved on the stage: when the frightened soldiers look out into the audience and use them as a visual reference point for the ‘mass grave of soldiers,’ you really feel like they’re looking through you as if you’re not even there. Additionally, the fragmented scene-changes between present day and pre-War France are suggestive of shell-shock or PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) representing the warped psyche of those lucky (or unlucky) enough to survive the conflict. Moreover, casting choice perfectly shows the loss of innocent lives many experienced as a result of the war – Isabelle’s daughter-in-law and an anonymous prostitute are played by the same actress, highlighting the extremes of survival.
Loss of innocence is a particularly strong theme and no character encapsulates this better than Tipper (Alfie Browne-Sykes). He represents the young boys who lied on their enlistment forms in order to go to war – he claims to be 18 but is actually 15. Throughout the first act, his fear becomes more evident until he eventually breaks at the prospect of going over the top. This is a stunning performance from Browne-Sykes because, whilst the other characters keep their emotions on the inside and try to carry on, he demonstrates Tipper’s immature mind is not ready for the horrors of war. He snaps completely, and his death is arguably the most harrowing as it is ultimately fear that kills him as opposed to enemy fire.
Music is a powerful device in this production. Most prominent is Cartwright (James Findlay), a lone violin player who represents the music the soldiers used to keep up their spirits, as well as accompanying vital scenes. He provides a haunting soundscape for the darker elements of the action, for example singing ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’ as people lay dying. He has a noticeably folk-style tone, a small break in his voice making him sound like an Irish bard lamenting the loss of his comrades. There are also moments where the whole cast sing: sometimes they join in one of Cartwright’s jaunty tunes vocally lead by Jack Firebrace (Time Treloar), but they also join together in humming which gives an energy to certain central scenes in the play.
A key figure in the play is Firebrace, one of the people who dig tunnels underneath No Man’s Land trying to find the German forces. He takes on a father figure for the group, looking after the younger ones and always ensuring that everyone else is safe. However, he is not without loss: his son dies at home, and his best friend dies in front of him, eventually leading him to break as well. His final scene with Stephen is particularly heart-wrenching. Treloar and Kay work together masterfully to draw the audience into the tunnels with them. This scene also brings together all elements of stagecraft, as the minimal isolated lighting stands out against the darkness of the stage, trapping the audience in the tunnels with the two men struggling to survive.
Just as hope seems lost, there is a moment of salvation. Stephen comes across a German soldier in the tunnels, who informs him that the war is over. The German soldier grasps his hand and asserts ‘never again,’ the ardent message of peace undercut by the audience’s knowledge that World War II is only 21 years away. Stephen later recounts in a letter how surreal it was that suddenly everything was over and the killing could finally end. The earlier scenes of Stephen’s happiness with Isabelle compliment and complicate his present state: they imply to the audience that there is a chance for him to regain that happiness, but there is also the bitter knowledge that it will be impossible for him to return to his life before.
Wagstaff’s adaptation is a stunning production that sensitively yet effectively retells the lives of the people on the front lines. It tells a painfully human story, showing how men from all over Britain were affected by the terror of World War I. Sebastian Faulks has said: “This is the fourth and final tour of Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of my novel and, as it coincides with the centenary of the Armistice in 1918, it comes with an additional air of celebration…I very much hope that this finale will be a glorious one.’’ And it is. Necessary and heartbreaking, Birdsong is a fitting tribute to those who gave their lives for ours 100 years ago.
Birdsong is now performing at the York Theatre Royal, 5th – 9th June.