Birdsong, Rachel Wagstaff’s stage adaptation of the novel by Sebastian Faulks returns to The King’s Theatre Edinburgh (Tue 8th to Sat 12th May) as part of its 2018 tour, and this being the 100th year since the end of World War 1 perhaps makes everything here a little more poignant.
Birdsong is three stories in one – our tunnel diggers, The Sappers; The British Army, and above all the tunnelling and fighting; and a great love story.
Adapting any book for the stage, let alone one the length of “Birdsong”, is always going to be difficult, and Rachel’s decision after the early production of this work to make the story line non-linear as per the book, and Stephen’s earlier romance told in flashback memories was without doubt in my mind the right decision, as these two interweaving stories contrasting life before and during The War illustrate perfectly how people’s everyday lives were destroyed forever.
Tim Treloar returns here to his award winning role as Jack Firebrace, and gives us a perfectly believable “Jack”, a man lured from his everyday work as a tunnel digger for The London Underground by the offer of higher wages to use his experience at “The Front” to dig what to him was just another tunnel. Nothing they could ever imagined in their worst nightmares could have prepared Jack and his fellow Sappers Arthur Shaw (Simon Lloyd ) and Tipper (Alfie Browne-Sykes) for what was awaiting them in their new jobs. The basic principle was simple – dig tunnels underneath the enemy lines, pack them with explosives and kill as many of the enemy as possible. Of course, the enemy were doing just the same thing. Amidst this horror, and the occasional letter from home (bringing good and bad news), strong bonds are formed, and the relationship between Jack and Arthur is something special and portrayed so well by Tim and Simon. An unexpected bond also forms between Jack and army officer Stephen (Tom Kay), and although their two personal worlds could not be further apart, war has forged the unlikeliest of bonds. This though is a completely different type of relationship to Jack and Arthur, one based more on loyalty and personal debts being repaid rather than deep friendship.
Tom Kay is a very good “Stephen” here and his portrayal of a sensitive, artistic man, perhaps even a “dreamer” trying to make sense of the carnage around him is done with skill and a great deal of empathy for his character. Madeleine Knight as Isabelle, Stephen’s pre war lover also gives a very good and very sensitive performance here and somehow manages to also retain that elusive dream world of a “memory” in her portrayal. War changes everything and everyone, and Isabelle out of all of our principal surviving characters is forced by changing circumstances into choices that she should never have had to make, and again Madeleine get this balance just right in her portrayal of Isabelle.
There are no weak links on stage in this work. Everyone is believable, and very good set design allows for the now and the past to be merged without major scene set changes. Not forgetting too, some very good costume, lighting and sound design.
Birdsong is a perfect stage story. By focusing on a few individuals in a conflict of unimaginable scale we get real human stories and people that we actually care about. Birdsong does what all good theatre should do, make you want to listen to what the next word of the story is.
This is not a story of the “Glory of War”, but the utter futility of War. There are no winners here on either side of the conflict, and the people who perhaps suffer the most first are as always the ordinary people, the non combatant men, women and children.
There are many powerful lines in this story, but the recognition that at the point of our main offensive on the Somme, the army was made up largely of conscripted non professional soldiers - grocers, farmers, everyday people who should never have been fighting in a war - is worth noting. Also, right at the end, the gifts between soldiers at the war’s end is particularly poignant in light of what was to happen in all too short a time to Europe.
This is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1 this year, and it is sadly perhaps worth noting that to the people of the 1914-1918 war, this conflict was known only as “The War”, then variously “The Great War”, or “The War to End All Wars”, and that in just over 20 years people would again see another World War and the need to name this one “World War 1”. I cannot help but feel enormous sorrow that some of these combatants were young enough to go to war again, and that many sent their children off to fight and die in another War that they imagined through their efforts could never happen again.
If you think that the events of World War 1 (and World War 2) are far away and consigned to history, simply take a walk round any 20th century cemetery in Edinburgh (or anywhere else in Scotland or the UK), and you will see the memorials to those killed in action. History is not dead, it is only a few steps away from you now.
Birdsong is perfect theatre, go and see it anywhere (not just The King’s) if you get the chance. As a work, it raises many questions and gives no answers, and like Stephen 100 years ago, I am still asking myself “What was it all about?”, “What was the purpose of losing so many lives?”. I have never found an answer to these questions, and sadly, looking around the world today, we seem to have not learned anything from our mistakes. If anything, we seem to have been fooled by propaganda (again) that our high tech weapons of terror and killing allow us to have a clean and clinical conflict. Sorry, folks, but “Birdsong” is the very ugly face of War. In the end everything comes down to foot soldiers fighting foot by foot for territory. All those lives lost, and nothing has changed in 100 years.
Review by Tom King