It was always going to be a mammoth task to bring Sebastian Faulks’s epic 1993 novel Birdsong to the stage. Playwright Rachel Wagstaff and director Trevor Nunn have created a distilled version that brings out the central themes of love and war.
As those who have read Faulks’s novel will know, Birdsong follows the character of Stephen Wraysford before and during the First World War. As a 20-year-old in 1910 he meets and falls in love with Isabelle, who lives with her factory owner husband and step-daughter in the town of Amiens, near the Somme in northern France. After a passionate affair, the lovers part. Years later, while serving in the British army, Stephen’s return to the Somme, this time in battle, spurs him to find out what happened to Isabelle, whom he still loves.
The novel is a weighty tome, jumping forwards and backwards across time periods as it sets the story in the context of Stephen’s future granddaughter, who discovers his story after deciphering his encoded journals. But, perhaps wisely, Wagstaff has stripped out this aspect of the tale and streamlined the story, focusing most strongly on Stephen’s experiences during the war.
Ben Barnes, as Stephen, opens the play as a fresh-faced, passionate Englishman narrating his visit to Amiens as he writes about it in his journal. His love affair with Isabelle is told against a series of painted and photographic backdrops from set designer John Napier, giving the story a strong sense of time past, and rooting it in its literary origins. It is like reading an illustrated novel. As the play progresses to Act 2 – after an impressive segue-way from Act 1 – the narration is gone and the experiences of Stephen and his fellow soldiers in the trenches become the present, with Amiens a distant memory; in fact, the shift in focus is so big that at first it feels like watching a different play.
In Nunn’s production, Faulks’s story becomes more about war than love. The focus of Act 2 is not so much Stephen’s enduring love for Isabelle but his horror and gradual disillusionment with war. Napier’s graphical designs, coupled with strong performances from Lee Ross and Paul Hawkyard as doomed soldiers Jack and Arthur, conjure the horror and tragedy of World War One. If the play cannot quite summon the scale of the war, it is due to the inevitable limitations of the stage, but Wagstaff’s carefully constructed adaptation makes up in words what the stage limits in visual power.
Barnes, on stage for almost the whole three-hour play, is given strong support by Nicholas Farrell as Isabelle’s husband and later, Stephen’s superior in the army. Florence Hall turns in a lively performance as Lisette, Isabelle’s 15-year-old step-daughter, capturing teenage passions to comic affect, while Genevieve O’Reilly and Zoe Waites as Isabelle and her sister Jeanne show the impossible situations that women of the era had to face.
It must be the sign of a good story that as the play comes to an end – perhaps a little later than it could – the emotion of the story and its roots in reality leave a lump in the throat. Nunn and Wagstaff have created an adaptation that deserves its place on the stage, even if it left me wanting to return to the book and read it again.