Tag Archives: First World War

Birdsong @ The Birmingham Rep

birdsong

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
@elliciapendle

Only Remembered: Michael Morpurgo @ Birmingham Hippodrome

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This Remembrance Day weekend, national treasure and former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo graced the Birmingham Hippodrome for ‘Only Remembered’. After a sell-out four-week run of the acclaimed National Theatre production War Horse, Michael joined musicians John Tams and Barry Coope to give an intimate reading of excerpts from the novel.

     If Michael Morpurgo hadn’t become a prolific children’s author, he would have made a remarkable stage actor. Although unassuming, as he walked on stage and smiled coyly at his audience, the moment he began to read I was immediately transported to the world of one horse’s experience in the First World War.

     Set in 1914, Joey, a young farm horse, is sold to the army and thrust into the midst of the war on the Western Front. Witnessing the horror of the front-line and the desolation of the trenches, Joey’s courage touches all who meet him.

     I first happened upon War Horse when I was nine years old. A rather precocious child, I was relieved to find that Morpurgo addressed me as an equal rather than subordinate. I began at last to understand the loss and suffering in the war my great-grandparents faced. It was the first novel that made me sit up and pay attention, and rightly so.

     The unequivocal horror of World War 1 claimed not only the lives of millions of men and women but also the lives of over six million horses. Morpurgo’s tale is an adept portrayal of the incomprehensible nature of war, as the reader sees the world from Joey’s perspective. Whilst completely aware of his younger audience, Morpurgo never shies away from highlighting the violence of human cruelty and disdain for both animals and each other. It is this bravery as an author that has no doubt won him respect from children across the world.

Jack Seely on his war horse Warrior

     Morpurgo was a fine and sensitive orator; heralding his days as a teacher. Each new accent, from Devonshire to German, was tackled flawlessly; waves of laughter erupted particularly at his depiction of a Welsh soldier. Funny and heartwarming throughout, his ability to change tone at the drop of a hat left me breathless on several occasions.

     One extract was particularly powerful when read aloud. ‘Mad Friedrich’, the German ammunitions cart driver is talking to Joey and another horse ‘Topthorne’:

‘I tell you, my friends,’ he said one day. ‘I tell you that I am the only sane man in the regiment. It’s the others that are mad, but they don’t know it. They fight a war and they don’t know what for. Isn’t that crazy? How can one man kill another and not really know the reason why he does it, except that the other man wears a different colour uniform and speaks a different language? And it’s me they call mad!’

     Unfortunately, I felt the background music detracted from Morpurgo’s reading. Although John Tams and Barry Coope were clearly talented musicians, the songs and synthesised keyboard seemed an odd choice and I often felt myself willing for it to stop so Morpurgo could continue with his story. The music did suit, however, when the two sang war songs from the period; this added an extra element of reality that grounded us even more in Joey’s world.

     The old adage ‘never meet your idols’ fell completely short. Michael Morpurgo was magnificent and I fell in love with War Horse all over again. It was a pleasure to see such a varied audience responding to his work. Groups of schoolchildren mingled with students and the elderly for an afternoon of reminding ourselves why Remembrance Day is so important.

By Elisha Owen

@ElishaOwen11