In 1989 writer Sebastian Faulks stood at the Somme holding the hand of a WW1 veteran, an old man who had fought with his friends then watched them disintegrate under fire. Faulks vowed this dreadful war must not be forgotten and in the play ‘Birdsong’ his message comes through loud and clear, a warning not to forget the obscenity of war.
There is much in the news about the horrors of World War One, the war to end all wars it was said, the first mechanised war full of new toys the like of which had never been known before. Books have been written on the subject, documentaries made but in the theatre you brush against reality. With ‘Birdsong’, coming to the Opera House on 23rd June, you are close to the action.
When you take your seat in the theatre you are confronted by the trenches, the cavernous mouth of a tunnel stretching underground, above crosses on a hill silhouetted against the skies of Northern France. Already there’s the rumble of heavy gun fire, exploding mortars, there’s tension in the air and yet, when there’s a lull in the bombardment, you can hear the bird song.
It’s an emotional, dramatic, frightening, draining experience as we mix with soldiers, muddied and bleeding, who appreciate socks and fruit cake in their parcels from home as they fight for their king and country.
This story is told on two levels; a young man at a house party falls in love with his hosts wife, the feeling is mutual, they spend time together and their story weaves in and out of his mind during his war experience.
Our hero is Stephen (George Banks), his lover Isabelle (Carolin Stoltz) and she is upmost in his mind even when he is sent to the Western Front in 1916. There are a number of flash backs charting the process of his doomed love affair but it’s the vivid warfare that gripped me and the bond between Stephen the officer and the working class sapper, Jack Firebrace (Peter Duncan). When Jack receives a letter to tell him his little son has died: “I loved him more than my heart could bear.” Peter Duncan’s is a moving portrayal of this kindly man who puts his own trauma behind him to help his injured comrades. Moving too, and ironic, is the moment towards the end of the play when a German soldier gives Stephen his Star of David.
Adapted from Faulks best selling book, this anti-warfare play doesn’t take the entire story of the novel rather concentrating on the love affair and scenes of battle. Rachel Wagstaff adapted the original play resulting in the present production which is gripping with some highly emotional scenes and sensitive acting. Her adaptation moves the play along, people in the audience are engaged, we are part of it.
Duncan described it as a deeply perplexing subject telling of the human trauma in the trenches and he said, the stupidly of our species. He also surprised me by the fact that only 30% of the public attend a theatre once a year and this figure drops to 9% when you take away pantomime production. What they are missing!
‘Birdsong’ has been playing to packed houses and I’m not surprised. I saw it in the Everyman Theatre Cork, a cast of 12 passing smoothly between past love and present war, with the help of excellent lighting and sound.
Laura Barclay, deputy stage manager, looks after the sound desk and doesn’t spares us when it comes to the explosions. Well placed music is poignant and beautiful, the costumes authentic and at a packed question and answer session after the show, there was the same camaraderie between the actors as with the characters they portrayed. The company describe themselves as an ensemble and although touring for months, they say they can sense the enthusiasm of each audience and how this creates a new energy every night.
Faulks never wanted his book turned into a play but Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation convinced him. “It’s important that we don’t forget what happened,” he said. “I wanted to bring the war back into the public consciousness, especially at a time when we seem to be gearing up for wars all over the place.”
He achieves this In ‘Birdsong’.
More at www.goh.co.uk
First appeared in the Irish News
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