“More resonant than sword waving in front of machine guns”
‘Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped’
Which is what you do get in this moving if fitful adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. There is lovely singing and there are skylarks – but there is also a rat on a bayonet, blood dripping down 60 feet, and furious bombardment.
This is poignant and dramatic storytelling by the Original Theatre Company. Yes, Faulks’ book is blasted open in Rachel Wagstaff’s new version for the stage and at times the effect is not pretty, parts do fall away and some of the shoring up looks shaky but I reckon that’s inevitable. The back set is a high rampart of shattered wood and piled debris. Two large timbers make a cross that rises above the parapet in a stark reminder that Christ had one hell of a job to do on the Western Front. Men pray in this play, which is not at all what I remember from the book, and it is horribly easy to understand why. That green hill is not so far away and might well be undermined by tons of explosive that will send you to kingdom come.
What I do recall from Faulks’ pages are sex and war story content of frightful detail and claustrophobic novelty. Well, the sex is still around but the novelty has gone because even if you do not know the book there’s the two-part tv. series with Eddie Redmayne and the Australian film Beneath Hill 60. Tunnelling onto and about the stage aint the same but the sappers do a brave job of crawling by (electric) candlelight. They ‘Play Fritz’ and imagine the lives of the enemy, who may only be a few feet away, below, above, or ahead. There’s suspense to be had before an attack tunnel breaks through or a detonation shakes the walls and then there’s rushing confusion. Nevertheless, the best action stays with the characters.
With a name like Jack Firebrace we’re close to plain allegory. Peter Duncan plays him admirably as sturdy, loving, dauntless . The short scenes when this former London Tube tunneller and his best mate, Arthur Shaw (Liam McCormick), share letters and thoughts of home are possibly the most affecting in the play. What is more intense but – it seems – far less mature is the love affair between Stephen Wraysford, 20, (Edmund Wiseman) and Isabelle Azaire, 27 (Emily Bowker). The individual performances are easily good enough to make this believable in the moment but it is a stretch to see it played out over eight years, from 1910 to 1918. The flashbacks flare and are gone and you can almost see the narrative being shovelled in before the light vanishes. A final, near wordless, scene when the cast of Stephen’s lacerated memories people the stage is a welcome coup d’oeil upon the whole ghastly shebang.
Arguably a resurrection is being played out: of Stephen’s passionate love and of his war – that’s understood; but it is also an appeal to stand by what is now out of living memory. Hence the really telling effect in this production of folk song, hymn and psalm, beautifully sung by James Findlay ; a cut above and much more resonant than sword waving in front of machine guns, more so even than a Tommy / Hun hug of reconciliation. For what Wagstaff has crafted from Faulk’s book and what director Alastair Whatley turns out on stage is a theatrical ‘Stand to’ – to guard against what Stephen kept close in his coded notebook and is now given voice:
‘No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand … We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us’.
You might simply want to accept Stephen’s commanding officer’s invitation to join him for tea on the Royal Mile when ‘this’ is all over. Or you can talk about ‘Birdsong’, which would be better.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 22 April)
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