Written by Sebastian Faulks, directed by Alastair Whatley
Presented by The Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions Ltd
14th - 18th April 2015
Photograph by Jack Ladenburg
I am not a big fan of novels but Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks was an
exception, and proved to be an absorbing read.
Faulk's book is over 500 pages long and encompasses several time periods
and sundry locations. But for the purposes of stage production the modern
voice of contemporary times is omitted.
This does not detract in any way from the dynamic and humane force of
the novel, in fact it is perhaps for the best.
I must admit the love aspect, contained in the book and play, between
Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford (Edmund Wiseman) and Isabelle Azaire (Emily
Bowker), did not have much resonance for me, in the context of what was
going on around them in the killing fields and ditches of France.
The central heart of Birdsong lies in the lives of the ordinary soldiers,
the Sappers, forced to endure utter degradation, terrifying ordeals and
ultra disciplinarian higher ranked soldiers. Wraysford was an exception,
letting off squaddie Jack Firebrace (Peter Duncan) from a potential court
martial, after, not surprisingly, falling asleep while on sentry duty,
after completing a shift in the tunnels.
This act of kindness by Wraysford leads later to a friendship developing
between the two of them, which notably comes to the fore as they endure
insufferable conditions working in the tunnels.
The tunnels on stage were perhaps twice the height and width of those
at the Somme, which were often sixty feet below ground, in which men had
to crawl on their stomachs for hours on end. They were often assigned
to do twelve hour stints, placing bombs under German positions.
A large proportion of the men had either previously worked excavating
tunnels on behalf of the London Underground, or had worked down mines,
digging out coal. But needless to say, the conditions at the Somme were
more perilous to work in.
Some members of the audience around me looked perturbed whenever the
loud explosions of shells being detonated took place, which gave an semblance
of an idea of the ferocity, savagery and nerve jangling horrors of what
the troops had to experience, hour after hour, day after day.
The scene changes were effortlessly and expertly executed, switching
from and to different locations - the army hospital - where Wraysford
was found to be alive after being presumed dead - the Azaire's palatial
home, the bars where the French prostitutes gave sustenance to men having
a brief break from the carnage at the front - can you imagine the comfort,
however temporary, it must have been to have the warm embrace of a woman's
body - and, of course, inside the tunnels.
The death rate of the First World War was estimated to be ten million
military personnel and seven million civilians. But the utter futility
of war still goes on unabated.....