An inspired, hard-hitting piece of theatre, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong embodies the human stories behind the tragedy of World War One. The drama centres around Stephen Wraysford (Edmund Wiseman) and Isabelle Azaire (Emily Bowker) as they embark on an ill-fated romance which is told in a series of flashbacks as Stephen encounters the horrors of war, fighting on the Western Front in 1916. The flashbacks give us an insight into Stephen’s past – care free days of fun, laughter and almost childlike innocence which contrast with the cold aloof army officer, who has been hardened by the atrocities of war.
This touring production of Birdsong by the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions Limited is not only a new production with a new cast but has also seen a new revised stage adaptation by Rachel Wagstaff. It is no mean feat to transform a 503 page novel which tells a story over three generations into a two and a half hour play. Through Wagstaff’s powerful writing, the audience quickly develops an affinity with each character. As their stories unfold, we care about Jack Firebrace, the tunneler who yearns to be reunited with his son, Arthur, Jack’s loyal, caring best friend who is far from his Sheffield home, 15 year old Tipper who lied about his age to enlist and Evans, the brash welsh farmhand, full of bravado and bluster who remains an innocent at heart.
It is a shock realisation when we learn that a battle is to take place near the river Somme, for it was on the banks of this very river that Stephen’s love affair with Isabelle grew. With the gift of hindsight, we know the carnage that this battle will bring, not just to Stephen and his men but to the entire British infantry. Probably one of the most emotional scenes of the play was on the eve of the Battle of the Somme, where we see the men write their last letters home. Each man, though different in background, class and education, cherishes those dear to them and you could not fail to be moved by the touching delivery of those final scribbled lines from the front. Clever set design and effective lighting add realism while the violin and haunting vocals of James Findlay create a haunting atmosphere. I found this portrayal of the First World War particularly poignant coming so close after the centenary celebrations. There was tension in the air as the audience saw the soldiers leave the trench to go over the top into battle at the Somme. It is incredible to think that over 57,000 soldiers lost their lives on the first day of that battle.
A lesser known aspect of the First World War was the battle raging below ground as tunnelers on both sides took part in the elite but dangerous job of laying mines and fuses. It is in this warren of tunnels that the most dramatic scene takes place, where Stephen and Jack find themselves trapped after a German mine explosion. Desperately trying to save them, Stephen attempts to blast their way out. The explosion is successful and Stephen comes face to face with his German counterpart. The fictitious ‘Fritz’ becomes flesh and bone and Stephen has the emotional realisation that in fact the individual soldiers on both sides are no different and share the same hopes and loss.
This moving exchange between two enemies has all the more impact when we learn from the German, Levi, that the war has ended. The play closes after the two embrace with Stephen resolutely declaring “Never Again”.