Published on Public Reviews 28th April 2015
Rachel Wagstaff’s stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong continues to go great guns, stopping off at Bristol Old Vic, as part of this, its third national tour. You can understand why; still in the midst of the centenary of the First World War, Faulks’ novel is a beautifully realised piece of storytelling that captures a small part of the horror that fighting in the trenches entailed, men holding onto life and sanity by the skin of their teeth, hope only coming in the writing and receiving of letters and of memories of loved ones from distant times.
Wagstaff has cut down the time frames from the novel in her adaptation, removing the 1970s period which gave the book its feel good end, but it is a memory piece that finds its echoes in the works of American greats such as Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller. So scenes from the grey trenches are linked with the primary colours of 1910, where young Stephen Wraysford (Edmund Wiseman) begins a passionate affair with the young wife of his host (Emily Bowker). Years later, as he fights at the Somme it’s his memory of her that keeps him moving forwards through the horror. The trenches are his home now; the dead, mangled bodies littered around him just another footnote to the scars in his heart.
No one can hope to put even a little of this horror on stage but, for my money, Alastair Whatley’s production plays it too safe, it’s over-sanitised and dulls the edges. Though we can smell the cigarette smoke drifting from the stage, we aren’t shown the dirt under the fingernails, the intense heat of the affair, can’t smell the pure desperation of the men in matters of sex and death. There is some lovely visual imagery in Victoria Spearing’s trenches, atmospherically lit by Alex Wardle, but the whole piece is played one step removed so that we feel strangely unaffected until its last moments, as two men hold each other, from opposite sides of no man’s land, victor and vanquished united in a moment of brotherly exhaustion.
It’s not helped by some uneven acting throughout the company – with Python-esque French accents to boot – with only Peter Duncan as the tunneller, whose story is paralleled and then comes into direct contact with that of Wraysford, and James Findlay’s ethereal folk voice, really making an impression. Faulks pitches in with a couple of small cameos on opening night, a desire apparently to tread the same boards as Peter O’Toole and he blends in well. So another box ticked for the skillset of the author, but even as the royalties roll in, one wishes for a stage production that is tougher and a bit more devastating.