Birdsong: a “bonkers” project come good

Stephen and Isabella first meet

Even Sebastian Faulks thinks Birdsong is a tough novel to adapt for the stage. Rachel Wagstaffe’s adaptation, however, did the best possible job of it.

One common misconception about playwriting is that adaptations is an easy way out. Someone else has done the difficult work with the creative side, one might think, and all you have to do is the technical task of transplanting it to the stage. On the contrary, it’s a fiendishly difficult job. There’s all sorts of pitfalls whether you are doing stage play to screen play, screen play to novel, novel to stage play, or anything the other way round. Amongst the challenges of a novel is the tough choice of what to put in and what to leave out – and anything more than 200 pages long will require huge cuts. And when you’re trying to adapt something as legendary as Sebastian Faulks’s acclaimed masterpiece Birdsong, you are trying to live to to impossibly high expectations. So when Rachel Wagstaff had a go at it, the story goes, Sebastian Faulks himself said it was “bonkers” to try.

And yet here we are, just over three years on, and Birdsong is now touring as a highly successful production by the Original Theatre Company. Now, the cynics amongst you will be aware that it’s perfectly possible to have a commercial success, either on the West End or a film, with a poor adaptation that sells itself on the strength on the book it’s butchering. So to clear any nagging doubts, don’t worry: this is a damned good adaptation of story that was extremely tough to bring to the stage.

The novel is an epic that takes place over 9 years. Stephen Wraysford is a young Englishman sent to with a factory owner in France, René. It become clear before too long that René underpays his workers to the point of starvation, forcing his unhappy wife, Isabella, to feed them secretly. Perhaps inevitably, Stephen and Isabella embark on an affair, and in another time, another place, that could have been a story in its own right. But the year is 1910, and the name of the nice river where they had their picnics? The Somme. Six years later, Stephen is now an officer in the run-up to a big offensive in the same place. Now the memory of the affair is just a side show. Now the story focuses a lot on the camaraderie. The collective delusion that the upcoming offensive will win the war. A lot of story about the sappers who tried to dig tunnels beneath enemy lines: men who were spared the senseless offensives over the top, but who instead has to face collapsing tunnels, mines going off underground, or being shot when you dig into an enemy tunnel.

Rachel Wagstaffe adapt the play by starting in the trenches and flashing back and forth to the story of Stephen and Isabella. A multi-purpose set is used, primarily representing the trenches, but also used to represent the sappers’ tunnels, ruined villages, Isabella’s home, and the picnics by the side of a river we’ll be hearing a lot more of in 1916. It has a few limitations – it’s tricky to imagine an affluent pre-war home on a set that represents a ruined town – but that’s mitigated by slick use of sound, props and lighting.

So does the play work as a blow-by-blow reproduction of the book? Of course not, and it would have been a mistake to try that. It’s better to look on an adaptation of this nature as edited highlights of the epic. What matters is whether the play captures the essence of the story, and it seems to do that quite well. There are big cuts from the book – the side-story of Stephen’s granddaughter looking back at his life in 1978 is cut completely – but nothing is substantially changed. The contrast between the dramas of a pre-war affair, and its insignificance against the horrors of the trenches, is portrayed very well. There is nothing particularly violent or gory shown on stage, but the horrors of the Somme are instead shown though fear, endless attrition, and the mismatch between the wild optimism of the upcoming offensive against its cruel reality.

One small price paid in this adaptation is that the tension is mostly spent in the first act. R. C. Shariff’s classic Journey’s End masters the build up of tension by setting his play in the four days leading up to the Battle of Saint-Quentin. Birdsong achieves something similar in the build-up to the Somme offensive, but after this, the same tension isn’t achieved again. There’s still plenty of story – heartbreak for Stephen when he discovers Isabella is now a German officer’s mistress, getting trapped in a tunnel hours before the war’s end – and this doubtless suited the novel format. But as a play, it was impossible for Act 2 to live up to the tension of Act 1. A minor snag to a play that otherwise did an excellent job.

So far I’ve only been complimenting the writers, both original and adaptation, but credit of course be shared with director Alastair Whatley, and the rest of the cast and crew. It was a highly slick and choreographed production – and I’d expect nothing less from a company that operates on this scale – but  you need top-notch directing to do justice to a play of this complexity. This adaptation cannot achieve everything; if you want something that’s as good as the book, read the book. But when so many big-budget stage productions are merely piggy-backing of someone else’s success, this play is not one of them. Whether or not you’ve seen the novel, if you see this you shouldn’t be disappointed.

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