“Even though we blow each other apart, the birds keep on singing”
I was moved to tears by Rachel Wagstaff’s stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulk’s much loved novel ‘Birdsong’. This play was clearly a popular choice for Windsor as the theatre was almost full.
We are drawn into the action in 1916 by a group of men taking a break from the horror of the trenches to sing, dance and make bawdy jokes. Although they tease each other and the regular soldiers call the tunnel diggers “Sewer Rats”, there is evidently deep fondness and camaraderie amongst them. The scene is set with a background of barbed wire and crosses etched against a pale sky. The roll of gunfire and crack of explosives sometimes distant, sometimes deafeningly close, serve as an omnipresent reminder of the threat of imminent death.
When we meet the main protagonist; Officer Stephen Wraysford (played by Tom Kay), he is stiff with reserve. His formal demeanour undercut by his reliance on reading cards and, more disgustingly, rat entrails to foretell the future – an unusually superstitious behaviour. We start to see more of his story through flash backs as he recalls scenes of his life in France from before the war. Unfortunately, the French characters speaking in French accents smacks a little of ‘Allo ‘Allo, undermining the spirit of the play. Nevertheless, we see the contrast in Stephen’s personality in these scenes. His warm, sensitive younger self is quick to fall in love with the elegant Isabelle Azaire (played by Madeleine Knight), the wife of his host.
Their passionate affair is revealed in snippets interspersed with his life in the trenches and the strong connection he develops with mine worker Jack Firebrace, movingly played by Tim Treloar. Jack suffers his own tragedy, Wagstaff’s emotionally intense script successfully places the deeply personal joys and sorrows of each character against the epic scope of mass suffering and loss but also loyalty, bravery and essential humanity.
I particularly enjoyed the plaintive violin playing, a lone soldier singing at some of the play’s most poignant moments and the ever present background of bird song. The letters home, read aloud by the different voices of each character, remind us of the different concerns, fears and thoughts of each man while they all faced the same future of marching across no man’s land. Martin Carroll’s Captain Gray utters the rallying words “Good Luck boys, I’ll see you on the other side” conveying a tragic double meaning.
Stephen’s despair deepens throughout the play. He calls the war a “pointless abattoir” and asks “is it worth dying for fields and hedges?”. Yet, there is hope for him at the end, even if it is a grim one in the shell shocked aftermath of the war:
“We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us”
The very performance and viewing of this play ensures the experiences of those that suffered isn’t sealed in silence but is powerfully retold.
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