Last week I caught the train down to Leeds to catch the stage version of Birdsong at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
It’s over a decade since I read Sebastian Faulks’ novel, but I still remember how much I enjoyed the story of the passionate love affair between a young Englishman and the wife of his wealthy French host, as World War One looms on the horizon.
The details of the story have slipped from my mind in those ten or more years, but they came flooding back as I watched the action unfold on stage.
The play opens with a group of WW1 soldiers enjoying a hearty evening away from the front lines in France, but it isn’t long before they are returned to the hardships and despair of the trenches. There we meet Stephen Wraysford, an eccentric young officer who shows kindness to another soldier after he falls asleep on duty. When the officer is grievously wounded, that same soldier saves his life, leading to the story of Stephen’s affair with the beautiful Isabelle.
After arriving in Amiens to stay with the friend of his guardian, a wealthy factory owner, Stephen is quickly smitten by the man’s much younger wife. Convinced of her unhappiness, he is determined to show her a glimpse of another life. And as their ardour grows, it threatens to have a devastating effect on both their lives.
This romance is played out against the backdrop of the Battle of the Somme, told in flashback as Stephen recovers after being wounded. The play moves at a swift pace, fluidly shifting between storylines and locations. At times I found the scene changes a little too hurried; I would have preferred to linger over certain moments, intensifying the emotions. But the cast are certainly adept at their quick changes, watching them move the story along it seems almost like a dance as they dash on and off stage, carrying props and switching around the backdrop from country house to desolate trench.
After the interval, the pace slows as the story comes completely into the approaching battle. This part of the play is particularly moving and the staging is striking, as one soldier accompanies the play’s most intense moments with a heart-breaking song that makes the hairs rise on the back of your neck.
Faulks’ novel was a love story, but it was also a tale of the depths that humanity can sink to, and the horrors of World War One. By juxtaposing this fight to survive against cheerful afternoons spent picnicking by the river and falling in love, Rachel Wagstaff’s stage version hammers home the tragedy and futility of war.
Ultimately this is a powerful production and a worthy adaptation of the original novel.
Birdsong is on tour now.