“This is not a war. It is an exploration of how far man can be degraded”.
The Battle of the Somme was without question one of the bloodiest battles in mankind’s history, resulting in the deaths of over one million. Such unprecedented carnage resulted in a great flourish of literature at the time, and continues to impact the literature of today as, with hindsight, writers are able to review the events of the First World War, and try to make sense of it all. As elusive as any sense of reason may be, however, such writers give voice to the people affected by the war, telling the stories of those who deserve to be recognised, and remembered, for their bravery, courage, and sacrifice, whilst refusing to shy away from trying to capture the full extent of war-time atrocity, in order that mankind might try to understand, and learn from, our mistakes.
Sebastian Faulk’s 1993 war novel, ‘Birdsong’, focuses on the individual experiences of fictional soldiers, and wonders how this affects, how it shapes, future generations. The novel, adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff, is brought dramatically to life by Birdsong Productions Ltd, in association with The Original Theatre Company, resulting in a tear-jerkingly beautiful and touching production that will really tug on your heartstrings. Directed by Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters, the production marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War, yet feels chillingly timely, given that the threat of war continues to loom even today.
The play centres around young Englishman Stephen Wraysford, as he leads his men both prior to, and through, the Battle of the Somme, and through the tunnels that lie below the battlefield. When he is injured, however, and presumed dead, Stephen begins to reflect on the idyll of his former life, opening the gateway for his memories, the ghosts of his past, to pervade his stream of consciousness, and they continue to do so throughout the production. Through the use of internal monologue and a series of flashbacks, which run alongside the present and main narrative, we learn of Stephen’s affair with the beautiful Isabelle Azaire, and watch his all-too-fleeting moving memories as they are disrupted , interspersed by his current horror, as we see his turmoil as he strives to hold fast to the memory of his love, and of his former life, hoping against hope to return to it once more.
Tom Kay and Madeleine Knight certainly do our central couple justice. Kay’s Stephen is initially quite emotionally detached, and it is not until after he is injured, and begins to share with the audience his memories, do we really sense a great depth to the character, beautifully communicated by Kay. Haunted by the shadows of his past, he is fuelled, powered, even brought back from a state of near-death, by his love for Isabelle. Knight’s Isabelle, a character in an abusive relationship, married to a man several years her senior, appears to have an understanding of justice, and defies her husband by taking food to his factory workers, who cannot survive on his pitiful wages. Although generally submissive, subdued by her dominating husband, there are moments when she appears to break free, and Knight gives a very spirited performance, with outbursts of strength. Both characters appear to have a similar zest for life, and it is one they can each sense in the other. Both Kay and Knight have a great on-stage relationship, and Knight’s Isabelle blossoms under the love of Stephen, Kay exerting a reassuring presence. Indeed, their love acts as a form of hope, and memory of their time together keeps the other going.
In addition to Stephen and Isabelle, we are introduced to a whole host of characters, and we see how the war affects all, doing so both in similar and different ways. We meet the young Private who lied about his age so he could join up, to the more experienced officers, hardened by their experiences, and trying to make the best of their situation.
The young Private Tipper, portrayed here by Alfie Browne-Sykes, really reflects the wide-eyed fear of the young boys who were “not supposed to be ‘ere”. Overcome by his fear, as his company is about to attack, to clamber over the top, likely meeting their deaths, Tipper breaks down in a fit of uncontrollable tears, shaking and doubling over, before reaching for his revolver, and firing a bullet into his head. Rather that than face the horror that awaits over the top. No more than a boy of 15, this moment really hits the audience hard, who pity this child, as we try to, but unsurprisingly fail, to understand just how terrible it must be, that to take your own life is preferable to facing the Germans on the battlefield.
In addition to the romantic relationship between Stephen and Isabelle, the play also focuses on the friendship between the men themselves, and this is explored through the relationship between Jack Firebrace and Arthur Shaw, played by Tim Treloar and Simon Lloyd respectively. With endearing performances from both actors, the relationship really gives us a sense of the camaraderie between men on the front, a band of brothers, who bond with each other, finding solace and security in the fact that they know, they understand, exactly what the other is going through, in a way that those at home never could, just as we today cannot begin to comprehend the full extent of the true horrors of war.
The production also suggests just how cherished letters and parcels were by the men from their loved ones back home, and we listen eagerly as they facilitate their responses by soliloquising. This adds a further depth to the characters, as they unwittingly reveal to the audience what they do not to each other and, in addition to painting as more complete picture of the individual lives they led prior to the war, and hope to return to, it causes the audience to invest more heavily in these characters, as they are personalised, and become even more human, to us, signing off with their first names, drawing us ever closer, before shocking us when certain ones are killed, the result devastatingly powerful.
We are also able to see the similarities that bind these men – despite their military position, they are all “flesh and blood”, all affected, broken and damaged by the impartial war. They try to make sense of it in their own ways, they undergo personal tragedies and losses, but collectively, the help each other through. We see these similarities most notably when two of the characters are forced into a very tight and intimate spot together, as is the case when Stephen and Jack are trapped in a tunnel, which collapsed in on itself after the Germans lay explosives at two points along the tunnel . Any sense of rank is removed, and the two men try to encourage one another, and even share their first names, again creating this sense of attachment. Whilst in the tunnel, Stephen meets a German soldier and, despite initially turning their weapons on each other, revolver is soon dropped, and the two collapse into each other in a fierce, desperate, and understanding embrace, a heartwarming moment of reconciliation, as they bond over a shared atrocity. Reminiscent of poet Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’, the soldiers are so much more alike than the leaders of their respective country’s, on whose behalf they are fighting, would have them believe, and the bitter truth that they may very well have been acquaintances, dare one say, friends, in another life, is not lost on the audience.
Victoria Spearing‘s scenery perfectly imitates the all-out destruction war wreaks, the stage a picture of war-time devastation, the dominating archways of large, church-like ruins on one side, the ruins of a house on the other (highlighting how the war too affected civilians), with rubble lining the back wall, atop which lay barbed wire – and this is a scene similar to that we would see the other side of No Man’s Land, surrounding the Germans, a result of the destruction caused by the British soldiers, both sides forced to retaliate.
The tunnels were very cleverly done: two wooden frames, giving off the illusion of continuation and length, lay facing each other, through which the men tentatively navigated, conjuring similar imagery to that presented by poet Siegfried Sassoon in ‘The Rear-Guard’. The lights were dimmed, and the soldiers were lit only by lanterns they carried, which really drew in the audience, giving off a crushing sense of claustrophobia, closing off the rest of the space on-stage.
Something of a focal point in regards to the set is a large wooden cross situated above the trench at a fairly high level, looming over all that lies below. Like those that line the graves of countless fallen soldiers, the cross serves as a brutal foreshadowing, suggesting that this battlefield is like to be the men’s grave – most of them, if not all, will die here. However, the symbol of Christianity worldwide, one cannot help but think of the sacrifice of Christ, who died so that, through him, other may live. These men were sacrificed, made martyrs, by war, dying for King and Country so that others might be free, might live.
Dominic Bilkey‘s sound is yet another important element of the production. Alongside Alex Wardle‘s stunning lighting, providing a beautiful backdrop of rich reds, purples and blues – that lies in stark contrast to the dark and oppressive nature of Spearing’s impressive sets, which themselves mimic the scale of the war, and the completeness of its resulting devastation – the auditory and visual effects of the production go a long way to echoing the sensory elements of the war, which provides an overwhelming attack on the senses of the audience. In keeping with the play’s title, birdsong often accompanies the action on-stage, seemingly incongruous when compared with the sounds of rapid gunfire and exploding shells. One of nature’s melodies, the dulcet tones of birds serve as a vivid reminder that, despite the mass slaughter of so many on the front, the bitter truth is that, for many others, life goes on, an unfair thought whichever way you slice it. However, whilst on one hand, it may remind the men of the life they will miss out on, it may also serve as a force that admonishes them “to live”.
The production doesn’t attempt to glorify war in any way – it doesn’t depict the idealistic mentality of men depicted in some of the early literature of the time, it doesn’t downplay the horror of the war, doesn’t make it seem less than what it was in vain and glorified attempt to present itself as being more palatable to audiences – it depicts war as it was, as it should be depicted, firing one hard-hitting truth after another at an audience, shocking us with its honesty.
‘Birdsong’ has been exceptionally well-choreographed, so that the events unfolding fuse seamlessly with he memories of Stephen’s past, a stirring coming-together of past and present, as we see the lives of so many characters turned upside down by war – and the war itself fuses even with our present today, and will continue to have a bearing on our future.
The production realistically captures the horror, brutality, and pity, of war, whilst clinging to notions of friendship, of love, and of life. Moments of intense and poignant reality are juxtaposed with moments of colourful and vibrant life, suggesting that, in times of despair, destruction, desolation and death, hope can shine through, and it is hope we should cling to, and use as an anchor to help collective mankind move on.
‘Birdsong’ serves as a heartfelt celebration of life and a touching tribute to those lost, raising the question for which there is no good reason – “What were we fighting for?” – and highlighting the inability of those today, despite the literature amassed on the subject, to understand.
“No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand. When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them. We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings. We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us” ~ Sebastian Faulks.