Birdsong – Online

Written by Sebastian Faulks

Adapted by  Rachel Wagstaff

Directed by Alistair Whatley & Charlotte Peters

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In the bleakest moments of atrocity, even war, stories of the human ability for kindness, compassion and endurance offer lifelines. 104 years, to the day, since the Battle of the Somme, one of modern Europe’s most horrific events, Rachel Wagstaff’s adaption of Sebastian Faulks 1993 novel Birdsong pays tribute to the tremendous valour and sacrifice of so many while streamlining their theatrical production for a digital medium – hoping to not only maintain the embers of theatre but promote The British Royal Legion and grasp the world’s focus, on the precipice of such inward destruction, that the lesson we seemingly have yet to learn about conflict.

For those lucky enough to catch the 2016, or subsequent 2018 touring production, fond memories will flood back of a dauntingly poignant show, and this returning online version contains enough deviation and difference to feel entirely innovative and individual. Set shortly before, during and after the Battle of the Somme, Faulks’ story revolves around the Tommys, miners who would dig the trenches and attempt to uncover enemy tunnels, focusing particularly on Jack Firebrace, and of his commanding officer Stephen.

Amalgamating the video format into a live performance, Alistair Whatley and Charlotte Peters’ direction refrains from cheap gimmickry, and while other productions find difficulty in modifying their narrative to a digital format, Birdsong excels. The intensity of the close-ups, only achieved with direct video, convey a rich connection with the performers, particularly Tim Treloar’s Firebrace. Fixated, it’s difficult to look away as the black knot in your stomach grows as Treloar’s words enrapture you, gripping the audience. In the silence of your own home, away from the distractions of a theatre, Treloar’s performance breathes humanity into Wagstaff’s words.

And this silence is paramount to the enjoyment of Birdsong – where possible, try to avoid watching this on a tablet or small screen, the editing process and visual quality has been crafted for no different an experience than a feature film. Dynamically staged, with multiple screens and the occasional fourth-wall break, Birdsong adapts to the medium, rather than accepts limitations. Where there is no physical set, it makes do, focusing on background designs, audio tricks and score. A composition played and designed by musical director James Findlay manages to almost evoke an intense response as hearing it in the heart of a theatre.

Additionally, combining elements of theatre and film, Faulks narrates the interceding scenes, offering a transition in place of a theatrical one which would enable time displacement or location changes. Swerving between the trenches, the earth-laden tunnels beneath the German troops or in the bright, fresh lands of provincial France, Tom Kay, Madeleine Knight and Liam McCormack all play their part in engaging with the audience, strengthening the believability of the digital production. Transformation is imperative, and each cast member evolves as the production moves forward. Kay’s status dynamic with Treloar shifts, as too does his emotional chemistry, resulting in powerful moments of silence, as he comes face-to-face with the enemy.

Are there insignificant issues of audio or effect warping? Certainly. Does this cause issue with enjoyment or appreciation? Not in the slightest. The tenacity, ingenuity and momentum propelling this unique performance of Birdsong forward are precisely what theatre thrives on, what empowers its creators and drives the audience to follow the siren calls of our treasured artform. Wagstaff’s adaption of Birdsong seeks to reignite our respect, recover a sense of waning history and demonstrate a significant reminder of the imperative words; “Never Again”.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/birdsong-online/

Available here to rent from 7pm 1 July until 3 July 

Birdsong – King’s Theatre

Written by Sebastian Faulks, Adapted by Rachel Wagstaff

Directed by Alistair Whatley & Charlotte Peters

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Never again”; the imperative words uttered regarding the First World War. Yet, in the darkest moments of human history, we find an enticing light to the subject. Whether it be through respect, education or simply guilt, the lessons we garner from these times are urgent. Adapted from the 1993 novel of the same name, Birdsong seeks to reignite our respect and recover history.

Beneath the moaning earth, littered with the fallen, an entirely different war was waged. Tunnels, some 100ft below No Man’s Land, carved out by British, French and Germans attempting to lay explosives below the other. Dug by ‘sewer rats’, men who dug out the London undergrounds, men like Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar) aching for news of his son in London. Still soldiers in their own right, risking their lives in multiple ways just as those above the surface did. Laced within this narrative are flashbacks to the rumbles of war, as Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay) arrives in France. He finds a gleam of light in the shade, Isabelle (Madeleine Knight) a married French woman.

Differing from the novel, focusing more on the stories of Wraysford and Firebrace is a respectful turn as opposed to their descendants. It eases the narrative, driving our attention into the correct areas. The fuse takes time to smoulder, and you’ll certainly find it easier to connect with one character over the other. Yet in the grand scheme their fates are entwined to the audience’s receptiveness. Deeply moved by the outcome, even with characters we hadn’t entirely warmed to.

A touching thematic exploration of fatherhood is conducted through the larger role of Firebrace. Treloar embodies the spirit of a father, the centre of his garrison keeping the men jovial and the young brave. Balancing this are Knight and Kay whose passions betray otherwise icy exteriors. The fleeting moments of fondness one seeks in desperate times are deep, showing that there is more to the tale of war than death. Even through this, love still exists, however complicated. The chemistry, more so than between the romantic leads, but Treloar and Kay as comrades is touching, leading to gut dropping moments.

Transitions are complicated in the medium of the theatre stage, unable to rely on the usual tricks screen productions can call upon. Birdsong however manages a tremendous feat, we never need to question if we are in the ‘present’ or past. More than this, simple tricks of the light and swift flat moves manifest all forms of location. From the grim trenches, deep underground to the claustrophobic tunnels. Alex Wardle’s tweaked lighting design is simple, nothing over the top but manages to shift the tone from one of song to the dreaded ‘over the top’ moments of the Somme tastefully.

With war, comes pain. One cannot sugar-coat the atrocities of the past, nor should we ever re-write them. Even in fictional works, the subject matter needs to remain as truthful as possible to real events. Throughout the seclusion of the grimness, small sparks of humanity remain. Tiny touches which, just to those brave men, lift the audience out of the doldrums. Singing, music and those symbolic birdsongs help alleviate the bleakness, whilst also reinforcing the severity of the situation.

Recovering history is of paramount importance. As memories fade, they alter, they shift and warp. Productions such as Birdsong, as too the original novel, seek to maintain a narrative. Even if fictionalised. It would be a stretch to describe Birdsong as uplifting, though it is enjoyable. Its subject matter of trauma isn’t made to entertain, more so to reignite emotions. In truth, it is a fundamentally engaging piece of adaptation, with merit behind its messages. For lest we forget (again), that what is war but hell?

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/birdsong-kings-theatre-edinburgh-2/