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/

Anthony & Cleopatra – National Theatre At Home

Adapted from the works of William Shakespeare

Directed by Simon Godwin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As part of their continuing ‘At Home’ series, providing theatre to the masses, The National Theatre serves disturbing illusions of love and war, set against the surging dynasty of Octavian Caesar. This surface of grand ideas, complex yet gorgeous lyrical language conceals a lacerating political drama where the tones of integrity, loyalty and devotion fall at the corruptive hands of obsession. An ancient love story, which declines to limit itself to a singular genre, Shakespeare’s Anthony & Cleopatra (loosely) accounts the relationship between the Ruler of Plotemic Egypt and occupant of Mark Anthony’s thoughts. Chartering their relationship from infatuation, dogmatic declarations and eventually, succumbing to fixation.

The epitome of a conqueror, demonstrating equal control of spoken word and physicality in his performance, Ralph Fiennes is every bit the Anthony one would expect. At first bold, seemingly uncomfortable in his baggy, Oriental trousers, is thriving for a return to action, a purpose. His bolstering against the continuation of Caesar’s inevitable rise oozes machismo in the manner in which Fiennes lifts, grapples, and grinds against the men, dominating them. Yet, behind this bravado, Fiennes measure of the performance is not in the brash piss-taker, but a distraught man who faces desolation at the hands of a younger foe. Though initially capturing the achievements of a man of war, and intimately twisted chemistry with Okonedo, it is this fall into the abyss where Fiennes ensnares us. What is Anthony though, without a resolute, commendable force to command his affections? What is Anthony without Cleopatra?

Poignant, playful, and persuasive, Sophie Okonedo is the visceral power behind the production. Mercurial, almost flippant in eruptions of sensation, Okonedo’s Cleopatra is less a temptress than a tigress, a calculating beast which belays an underestimated strength. She is, despite what others possibly interpret, not solely a figurehead of femininity but the deconstruction of gender, the smashing of normality which is thrust upon her in Shakespeare’s language. Her embodiment of Egypt, to be as ‘abundant, leaky and changeable as the Nile’ may characterise the sentiment of the country as the feminine, and Rome as the masculine, but Okonedo carries a unique approach which transcends the obvious. Both cities conduct themselves like the other, and Godwin’s manipulation of pretence allows for Okonedo to run with the part. She is a breathing paradox; petulant yet controlled, arrogant but all the while self-conscious.

As the wistful toying of words plays out across Alexandria, Egypt, the delivery of severity contrasts Rome. Notably, the productions key line deliveries are not solely on the parts of Fiennes or Okonedo, but in the supporting cast, chiefly from Tim McMullan playing Enobarbus, Anthony’s loyalist confidant. McMullan is controlled, jesting on occasion, bouncing to-and-fro off of Fiennes in perfect pacing where Godwin’s direction marries surreptitiously with Shakespeare’s language. Anthony & Cleopatra is by far at its most successful when Fiennes or Okonedo have the toys of supporting characters to play with, to manipulate. Allowing for dynamics in culture, as the men of Rome conduct themselves characteristically different to Cleopatra’s handmaidens, Gloria Obianyo and Georgia Landers (Charmian & Iras) who’s reverence for their ruler carry in a softer, but by no means less significant voice than the sycophants of Anthony or Caesar. 

Godwin maintains this allegory, traditional in adaptations to decipher the differences between Rome and Egypt, allowing for subtle (or blunt) commentary. It’s seen in the performances, the costuming, but more often than not, and no different here, the staging and set design illustrate the differences in the clean, opulent Egypt against the streaming, technology-infused war-rooms of Rome. Catapulting the modernist political drama aesthetic, Hildegard Bechtler captures the intensity, and arguable futility, of men playing at war. The semi-circular staging juts into the audience allows for intimacy, and though the revolving stage extends the already steep running time, the ingenuity behind the construct is unmistakable. Particularly when coupled with Christopher Shutt’s sound design as the ‘submarine’ emerges from the depths of the stage.

This length takes a substantial toll on the production’s rhythm, which is paramount to forgiving Shakespeare’s dashed conclusion. There are ample nap opportunities for the weary, as the difficulty in translating forty-two scenes into a single production. It impedes, where regardless of potency of poetic language, audience’s will be drawn away from the moment, particularly with supporting cast who simply cannot convey the delivery required. Shakespeare’s work is notorious for words ring hollow when spoken without conviction. Recitations begin to develop where performers are merely going through the motions, as opposed to breathing the language, tying it into the character.

Anthony & Cleopatra is a tragedy. It is also notable for its comedy, its loose historical context, its romance and political commentary. It is by no means a single genre, and by no means speaking with one voice. Godwin’s production, his intention, to demonstrate the corrosive capabilities of obsession is where The National Theatre’s recent performance excels, lead by two of the country’s prominent theatrical performers. It may feel like a slog in parts, but similar to Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra, this is theatre of “infinite variety”, a lesson we must not neglect in these times.

Anthony & Cleopatra is available to stream from Youtube until May 14th at 7:00pm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWc6_aCTqI0

Information, and vitallly donations, can be provided from The National Theatre website: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/nt-at-home-antony-and-cleopatra

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