In honour of the First World War centenary, The Rep recently staged Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of the best-selling novel Birdsong. As a fan of both the book and the BBC adaptation I was curious yet cynical about whether the tale could be successfully transferred to the stage. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Birdsong follows young Englishman Stephen Wraysford (George Banks), intertwining his experience of fighting in the war with flashbacks of his time in France beforehand- including his passionate love affair with his employer’s wife, Isabelle Azaire (Carolin Stoltz).
An impressive set was waiting in the gloom when the audience first filed in; a filthy trench with ladders stretching up to the implicit threat of No Man’s Land. Even now we are still shocked by the conditions they fought in, from the soldiers’ grimy uniform to the nurse’s blood stained apron. The neglected setting of the war scenes contrasted well with the elegant furniture used in the effortless flashbacks to pre-war France.
The play also tells the tale of the lesser known tunnellers, who laid mines under No Man’s land. I was doubtful of how these underground episodes could be conveyed on stage but the imaginative solution was to plunge the stage into darkness and pull forward a few short, propped-up wooden beams with dimly glowing lamps dangling from them. When the men came crawling through them on their hands and knees the illusion was complete and the claustrophobic atmosphere created on stage was stifling.
George Banks impressed me greatly as the lead, especially given the demanding nature of his role. Wraysford was required to be almost constantly on stage and to switch between the present and past continuously. This contrasted his carefree optimism and passion before the war with his disgust and detachment during the war, showing great depth of character.
However the best performance by far was that of Peter Duncan as the working class tunneller Jack Firebrace. Despite his poorer background he is the most noble of all the men, always in good spirits and cheering the others up- despite receiving the news that his little boy has died back in England. Duncan played him with a brilliant mixture of bravado and vulnerability that made him the most likeable character and the most tragic. Jack Firebrace is the decent man that gets written out of history and the play makes you feel guilty for that.
The play’s depiction of the experience of war was extremely vivid, with the sudden shell explosions making the audience jump in their seats and the aeroplanes being made to sound as if they were directly overhead. The horror of the Battle of the Somme was also alluded to without having to attempt to re-enact it. Before they go ‘over the top’, Captain Gray quietly tells Wraysford that their bombing failed to destroy the German wire. When Wraysford asks him what to tell his men, declaring they will be slaughtered, Gray tells him not to tell them and simply hands him a pair of wire cutters. The audience already knows the catastrophic consequences of the Somme and we do not need to see it to picture it.
Despite Birdsong evoking the experience of the First World War so well, it ends with Wraysford telling the audience that we can never understand what they went through- as all the other characters join him in silence, and listen to the faint sounds of birds singing. Thus despite our current commemorations of the First World War, a century after it started, Birdsong suggests that the true horror of the war remains concealed- leaving an even more poignant impression in the modern mind.
By Ellicia Pendle