Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Birdsong’ which tours to Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 22nd March 2014.
It was only a matter of time (twenty years actually) before Sebastian Faulks’ tremendous novel “Birdsong” was bound to reach the regional stage; and the Original Theatre Company’s tour of Rachel Wagstaff’s excellent adaptation is well worth waiting for.
It’s a monumental story that weaves back and forth through 8 years of war mongering and war. From it’s raucous, opening back-bar song, to its sensitive Shakespearean epilogue, it’s an epic through and through… leaving last night’s audience stunned with appreciation. At a time when we are being bombarded with the ‘pity’ of World War One, this hard-hitting production forcibly-but-thoughtfully reminds us why we just have to remember. There are wonderful, original words about the horror and futility of it all and how life in the Somme emptied every soldier’s soul. “How far can we go and still call ourselves human?”
And yet there’s so much love. The brotherly love of one Tommy for another, the desperate compassion of one desolate soldier for his exhausted enemy – and the even more painful bodily love of an aching officer for an ensnared lady.
As you might imagine, George Banks as Wraysford and Caroline Stoltz as Isabelle are absolutely excellent.
Through Banks’ deeply moving performance we see our very own grandfathers who, like Wraysford, must have been placed in impossible positions. His logic blown to pieces, he visibly leaks madness as he tries to comprehend the enormity of it all, knowing that when the whistle sounds his beloved men will be blown to pieces. This war is a conveyor belt to obliteration. There is no stepping off. There is nothing to be done
It’s his shuddering portrayal of pain that guides the production into and out of its flashbacks …to Amiens in 1910 and the passionate comforts of Isabelle. Stoltz is spot on…perfectly capturing the psyche of a caged woman who glimpses a way out, only for it to be barred again by responsibility. The inner battle to resist him is written all over her body and their bed-sheets ballet of lust is beautifully choreographed.
Also outstanding for me was Peter Duncan as Firebrace, the religious sapper engaged in the most dangerous underground explosions imaginable – against an unseen enemy. The progress of the play sees him stripped of hope, but not of faith or compassion. There were thousands of self-sacrificing heroes in the Somme, and Duncan’s dignity is a testament to them all. His long, slow death scene, deep underground, is a master class of sustained, confident acting and was heart breaking to watch. He was clearly wasted presenting ‘Blue Peter’.
The top-drawer performances are supported by some very poignant production details. On a relatively bare stage, light and sound are paramount. Atmospheric phonograph records support the domestic scenes and a mournful, reverberating violin accompanies us through the bombshells.
The tunnelling scenes are surprisingly realistic. With minimal props, the cramped conditions are conveyed by body language and dim, low-level lighting. And when it comes to the sickening crunch, a Welsh hymn accompanies the sombre writing of letters home whilst a buffoon intones an eve of attack speech so full of nonsense it would make Henry the Fifth wince.
Wraysford survives the ludicrous charge and, like Wilfred Owen, insists on returning to the Front because there is “a story he must understand”. Such is the power of ‘Birdsong’ his story will bring that depth of understanding to a whole new generation.
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