The Original Theatre Company have taken Rachel Wagstaff’s version of Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and created a masterpiece.
Birdsong is a critically acclaimed and popular book. At 500 pages long and spanning three generations Wagstaff had to choose scenes for the play carefully.
The relationship between Englishman Stephen Wraysford (Edmund Wiseman) and Isabelle Azaire (Emily Bowker), a married French woman with whom he has a tempestuous love affair is shown in flashback. The romance from Amiens, France in 1910 interwoven with action taking place on the Western Front, France between 1916 and 1918.
Wiseman beautifully conveys Stephen Wraysford as he tries to hang on to his sanity, refusing leave because he has no-one to go home to, using the entrails of dead rats to try to foretell the outcome of the next battle, his character comes alive when thinking about his beloved Isabelle.
For me, the one jarring moment in the production was in the love scene between Stephen and Isabelle. The scene is a memory while Stephen is in hospital; there is dance like twirling and Stephen and Isabelle dash about, opening and closing doors.
The strongest performance was Jack Firebrace (Peter Duncan). Jack is a Sapper in the Royal Engineers. Sappers, we learn, don’t do any fighting yet get paid more than the ordinary soldiers because of the dangerous job they do. Jack and his comrades spend 10 to 15 hours a day 70ft beneath the battlefields digging tunnels and laying mines to blow up the enemy.
Living in constant fear for his life, worrying about his family back home he is still a rock that his friends can lean on. Peter Duncan plays Jack with a quiet dignity that is heartbreaking.
The set (designed by Victoria Spearing) is flexible enough to allow the story to flow seamlessly; from a flashback of a picnic on a river bank, in two strides across the stage Stephen Wraysford is back in a hospital ward and a minute later back in the claustrophobic world of the trenches.
Reading theatregoers will remember Spearing’s work with Reading Rep (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, Proof, Nativity That Went Wrong). Actors crawl and crouch, ducking in and out of the tunnels.
Lighting (designed by Alex Wardle) and sound (designed by Dominic Bilkey) are as much a part of this play as the script. Lighting subtly changes to show the passage of time as well as dramatically reducing the battle scenes to lights and ear-splitting bangs and smoke.
As can be expected from a play about the First World War, parts of the play are harrowing.
In a very powerful final scene the cast directly address the audience and we are left wondering about the slaughter we have witnessed and what the point of it all was.
Did all those people die ‘for a few fields and hedges?’
The play left me choked and silent. I didn’t want to speak on the way home, just ponder on what I had seen.
Birdsong is at The Hexagon until Saturday. For details and tickets, click here or call the box office on 0118 960 6060.