Birdsong at York Theatre Royal

Like a lot of people whose school days are not yet a decade behind them, I can remember studying Birdsong for my A Levels and being immediately enraptured by it’s poetry and brutality. So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I saw Wagstaff’s adaptation. Always the fear with adaptations, the original loomed so largely in my mind that I was sure, by comparison, the stage version would fall entirely flat.

Disappointingly, I was not entirely wrong. I found this production of Birdsong did not quite play out the legacy of the book with any of the poignancy and beauty to be found in that text. Although at times shocking and moving, Whatley and Peters (directors) seemed not to know quite how to negotiate the layers of the book, blurring the brutal reality that was so striking about the original with a strange sentimentality that seemed purely born out of the canon of First World War literature. Many times throughout the production, there was the choice to use live song to amplify the emotion onstage, a handful of hymns and old war songs making their presence known in what felt like a heavy handed attempt to harken back to that era. This had the effect of distancing the audience further; the deep sense of the characters as real human beings that allowed the intense drama of the war to have such an impact in the book felt washed away by these sentimental ditties at times. There was an odd sense of dislocation, as if Sebastian Faulks’ novel had been fed through a production of Oh What a Lovely War!

However, removing myself from the love of the novel, I was not entirely disappointed by the production, and my companion (who had not read the original) was captivated and moved. In the moments where the play did not lean towards cliche, the talent of the cast and designers was able to shine. Tom Kay delivers an insightful performance, diving between the youthful and passionate pre-war Stephen and the cold and broken soldier seamlessly. He is partnered brilliantly by Madeleine Knight as Isabelle, and the chemistry built between the characters in the first half plays out gloriously in the second.

The other stand out star is the technical team. Spearing’s set allows the blending of memory that is central to the play, whilst bringing to live the grime of the trenches. Partnered well with Wardle’s striking lighting design, there are stand out moments where the set seems to dissolve away to bring the horizon of the trenches into stark reality. Bilkey’s sound design masterfully manages to normalise the distant thudding of shells, only to grip and terrify with the absolute intensity of close range bombardment.

The other downside to adapting such a novel as Birdsong is the sheer heftiness of the tome (I can clearly remember the shoulder ache of lugging it around the school corridors). And although the first half struggles to keep up with itself, there is a sense of release in the second, with a weight given to each moment that makes the whirlwind of the first worth it. One of the most powerful moments comes straight after the curtain rises; a powerful interaction between Stephen and Jeanne (Liz Garland) that shines for its simplicity. It is the moments like these, that rely on the beauty of the dialogue, that are the most moving. In trying so very hard to give a humanity to the characters, Whatley and Peters have inadvertently made most seem classics of the trope, typical naive lads too soon to the war or blindingly cheerful soldiers trying to rise above the horror. Tim Treloar as Firebrace particularly falls into this trap, bouncing between high spirits and utter devastation without nuance, making an utter caricature of a character that had the most power to move the audience. Against his performance, however, the ensemble cast manage to shine, with startling moments of comedy and painful moments of loss.

All in all, Birdsong is worth a watch for the fantastic technical recreation of the trenches and the strong acting of the majority of the cast. My greatest caveat, however, would be for those wishing to see the much loved novel onstage. The production is a strange beast that feels disconnected enough from the book to be engaging in its own light, and yet a pale imitation of the original in others.

Amy Noriko Ward

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