A stunning performance by actors Jonathan Smith and Sarah Jayne Dunn in the stage version of Birdsong at The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry 2013. Photograph by Jack Ladenburg
This is Rachel Wagstaff’s new version of this historical drama, revised from the West End original. The latter followed closely the structure of Sebastian Faulks’s classic book; whereas this new stage adaptation is not so sequential. One wonders how a restructure might work.
It works like this. This version is a memory play. It is 1916 at the start, and early in we see the central character, Stephen Wraysford (Jonathan Smith) in a dug out on the Western Front. The chronological steps of Faulks’s melancholic and powerful story, unravels, as Wraysford slips back into his memories, so from the starting point mentioned we visit Wraysford’s life shortly before The Great War. First recalling his stay at the Azaires’ family house in France, 1910 and moving on through, portraying the trouble and strife, the passion, and seeing the acquaintances he made from then to the end of the war. Scenes intersperse and the story telling fluctuates with a deftly portrayal too, of the impact the war is having on this man, on the troops (including the underground tunnellers) and those living civilian life above ground.
It goes without saying there is much to deal with, so scene changing happens quickly, but in an unrushed style, if that makes any sense. Rather than the constraints of time resulting in story threads being lost, players remain on stage (but out of the spotlight) or linger in the wings, briefly, to allow a speedy reappearance – yet the mood of restrained emotion is never compromised. For it is this mood that essentially weighs up this dark period in history, and it is one which Faulks tapped in to so brilliantly. And I think this script does too, and the performances of such a strong cast bring about moments of silence and inactivity, that you could hear a pin drop, and this dramatic device is used so effectively, and is the key, I feel, as to why this show is so-o-o good.
Slow to start, but once the tone is apparent to you, it is a stirring piece of theatre. I was moved to tears. The audience at The Belgrade, Coventry showed their appreciation by delivering rapturous applause.
FIVE STARS AWARDED *****
Writer attended The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry’s press night showing of Birdsong in the official capacity of a Remotegoat Theatre Reviewer – here.
Note: Show runs in Coventry until Saturday 2 February 2013. For 2013 tour venues and dates click here