[Originally posted on On:Yorkshire Magazine: http://www.on-magazine.co.uk/arts/yorkshire-theatre/birdsong-review-cast-doncaster/]
Having once focused on World War One literature for my university dissertation, I was well-acquainted with the story portrayed in Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong and thought I knew what to expect from the theatre adaptation.
I was wrong. I was not prepared to be so completely immersed in the story and find myself transported to the middle of the trenches, along with the characters in front of me.
The opening scene is a raucous gathering of foot soldiers and sappers drinking, smoking and singing. Well-timed ‘one liners’ provide a smattering of humour that quickly warm you to the characters. This feeling of camaraderie that you build with the battalion only makes the stark tragedies of war that play out in front of you all the more wrenching. I am sure I will not have been the only one in the theatre fighting back the tears at the end of the first half.
With the entire duration of the war plus equally important pre, during, and post-war storylines to convey in the space of just over two hours, Rachel Wagstaff’s re-imagining of the novel is no mean feat. The action moves at a rapid pace and skips between three different periods of time in a matter of seconds, but the clever scripting and fantastic acting ensures you follow every detail of the plot.
Birdsong focuses on the juxtaposition of the two main characters: Stephen Wraysford, a young lieutenant who has become disillusioned with the war effort; and Jack Firebrace, an ex-miner who digs long, deep tunnels under the German trenches as part of Stephen’s battalion.
Despite the obvious differences in age, class and status, one thing is clear: what motivates them both to carry on during the war is love. Stephen’s pre-war passionate and illicit love affair with Elizabeth Azaire consumes his thoughts in the trenches so much that we are taken back in time again and again to see snippets of their whirlwind romance. Jack’s dedication to his son back home and his close bond with fellow sapper Arthur keeps him going and is utterly compelling to watch.
Jack and Stephen are thrust together at the start of the play and their lives in the trenches become more intertwined as the story progresses. Stephen is known for being a distant Lieutenant to his men, but as the relationship and understanding between him and Jack grows so does his realisation that his life is no more important than those of his men. The poignant final scenes of Birdsong are testament to how all of the men, soldiers or officers, allied or ‘enemies’, are equal.
With fantastic sound and lighting effects and an incredibly talented cast (including well-known faces such as Peter Duncan of Blue Peter and Flash Gordon fame and Carolin Stoltz, who is best known as Elena Petrovich in Emmerdale), Rachel Wagstaff and director Alastair Whatley have created a spectacular theatre experience.
With 2014 marking the 100-year anniversary of the beginning of World War One, this play is a stirring and fitting tribute to all those who fought and fell for their countries.