Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, was brought to life at Dundee Rep by the Original Theatre Company guided by award winning director Alastair Whatley. Birdsong tells the story of Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford, recalling different stages of his life before and during World War I. The play is particularly relevant during this year’s centenary commemorations of the “War to End all Wars”.
Victoria Spearing’s set design and Alex Wardle’s lighting effectively evoked the underground tunnels and trenches of the Front. Shadows of wooden struts and barbed wire scarred the skyline. Tall ladders, stretching skyward, waited to take the soldiers from their muddy holes upwards, and “over the top” to certain death. Tunnel mouths gaped, welcoming the “sewer-rats” whose job was to burrow beneath enemy lines. Mention must be given to the haunting music sung and played by Samuel Martin. The roaring, pounding sound effects of Dominic Bilkey – thundering shells, exploding mines, grenades and rapid gunfire – brought home the horrors, the camaraderie, the bravery, but most of all, the hopelessness of Tommy’s war.
We first meet Stephen, convincingly played by George Banks, in 1916. Faulks’ original story begins in 1910, but the stage adaptation begins during the build-up to the Battle of the Somme, unfolding in flashbacks as Stephen is forced to confront memories of his life before the war. Initially the transitions between the war years and past memories, marked by the actor’s body-popping movement, seemed to me peculiar. However, combined with the fluid set and costume changes, the delineation between past and present soon became more clearly understood.
We learned of Stephen’s middle class life in pre-war industrial Northern France, living and working with the Azaire family; Renee (Malcolm James), his children, 16-year-old Lisette (Selma Brook) and her young brother, Gregoire (Jonny Clarke), and Renee’s young second wife Isabelle (Carolin Stoltz), with whom Stephen eventually begins a passionate affair.
The children were played by actors who, for me, were too old to lend their younger roles any believability, and I therefore struggled to make any connection to them as characters. In addition, while Stephen’s memories focussed on his growing attraction to, and love affair with Isabelle, the physicality and urgency of their first sexual encounter seemed out of time with the setting. The two actors seemed to me to be physically mismatched and their attraction to one another unconvincing. The scene became heavy-handed and, at times, I found it uncomfortable to watch.
Throughout the play Stephen’s story ran parallel to that of Jack Firebrace, a former miner employed in the British trenches to listen for the enemy, and plant mines under German trenches. I was impressed by the performance of former Blue Peter presenter; Peter Duncan, in this role. His portrayal of Firebrace was fearful, passionate, loving and caring, and provided a “common man” contrast to the aloof Stephen Wraysford.
The second half of the play far outshone the first. Fraught with fear, but bolstered by compassion and friendship, I witnessed pure physical emotion between Wraysford and Firebrace, trapped together underground after a German mine explodes. Banks came alive in this final scene with Duncan and, without giving anything away, I was riveted by both performances in the dramatic, emotional conclusion.
Seven years in the making, Wagstaff’s adaptation premièred in the West End in 2010, touring nationally in 2013. Her goal was to honour Faulks’ work, but also to create a drama that lived and breathed in its own right. Audience reaction would suggest she succeeded but, for me, while I enjoyed the play, some characterisation lacked the realism needed for this adaptation to truly breathe.