Birdsong is one the great novels of the late twentieth-century, a sweeping story of love, humanity and annihilation set against the backdrop of the First World War and in which a young man navigates the most tumultuous period of peace and conflict. Adapting Sebastian Faulks’s literary masterpiece has never been easy and after many stunted attempts since its publication in 1993 it was brought to the screen by the BBC in 2012 and then shortly afterwards (and independently) to the theatre. Now, Rachel Wagstaff has adapted her own 2013 theatre production for the new socially distanced experience of video calling platforms with a uniquely inventive online version of her play that pays the biggest debt to the lyricism of the original novel.
There have been many productions created during lockdown then streamed online across the last four months, resulting in clear development in the creative use of online tools to both capture and relay stories to audiences hungry for theatrical experiences. Some of the very best including Midnight Your Time and Staged have used video calling as the basis for their stories, expanding on the nature of connectivity and our attempts to overcome social distance by any means possible. Others have utilised the software to tell stories unrelated to the pandemic, transmitting live readings and performance of Shakespeare predominantly but also showcasing new writing including Jermyn Street Theatre’s rehearsed reading of The Skin Game.
Birdsong Online is in the latter camp, filming individual actors performing from separate locations but with an enterprising cinematic quality that uses changing backdrops, lighting, music and camera angles to successful recreate the impression of trenches, dugouts and field hospitals while the protagonist Stephen Wraysford also travels to the lush grandeur of pre- and mid-war Amiens. Staging Birdsong which covers eight of the most significant years of the century is a hugely ambitious undertaking in any circumstances, but to stage it in this way is little short of remarkable.
A Pivotal War Novel
When Sebastian Faulks published his outstanding novel more than 25-years ago it was quickly and rightly hailed as a masterpiece. Its depiction of the First World War was far more complex than the persistent popular image of 1914-1918 in which conscripted soldier-poets filled with disaffection were sent to slaughter by stuffy Generals. Historians had been writing about the contradictory impulses felt by men at war for many years – that to hate the experience of conflict could sit side-by-side with a compulsion to be part of it and a sense of duty to see it through whatever the cost were entirely commensurate reactions. When Birdsong was published it was still deeply unfashionable to suggest that the archaic notions of honour, loyalty and duty drove men to keep fighting and the other great fiction of that age, Pat Barker’s Regeneration, focused on shell shock and combatant disenchantment.
Faulks’s clearly well researched book was quite a radical repositioning of the fictional presentation of the Great War and, while many veterans published honest accounts both during and after the conflict, for a non-combatant to have created such a vivid and psychologically complete understanding of the experience of a war concluded decades before his birth was impressive. Moreover, the lyricism of Faulks’s prose, the expressive beauty of his phraseology brought the vision of war to the reader in a way never seen before. With an almost immersive quality, Faulks plunges us into the trench systems, craters and tunnels of the British lines and No Man’s Land, using language to create the sights, sounds and smells of prolonged warfare in what became an almost sensory experience. His poetic turn of phrase allowed a flesh and blood reality to emerge in his characters, taking a conflict so often portrayed as a blanket tragedy and relocating the evolving stories of its characters as weariness and frustration played out against an ongoing fascination – for Stephen at least – with how far man’s destructive impulses would go.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Birdsong is how Faulks counterpoints the story of the First World War and its far reaching degradation of human endurance with the restitution of Stephen’s soul. And far from losing his humanity on the battlefield, the cold personality of this broken soldier is eventually restored and renewed by the conflict. While Faulks never shies away from or downplays the brutality and cost of war – giving a detailed account of the first day of the Somme, the destructive effect of technology on flesh and the futility of the sacrifices made for small if any territorial gain – the character of Stephen is slowly revived through the events of the novel, learning to reconcile the emotional devastation he feels resulting from a doomed love affair years before with the value of his comrades, creating a renewed sense of hope and possibility as the novel concludes.
Staging Birdsong Online
With that in mind, Wagstaff had no easy task in bringing this novel to life, and while the barebones story is easy enough to create, so much of Birdsong‘s success as a novel resides in Faulks’s writing style, little of which is easily replicated through dialogue alone and the stage adaptation received a mixed response from critics although audience enthusiasm has resulted in several UK tours. Online however, Wagstaff more successfully marries the story’s literary origins with the dramatic recreation of its core scenes, borrowing a little from all three media in which it has been adapted.
Wagstaff solves the issue of restricted scale on video calling platforms and the limited recording equipment available by using the authorial voice as a narrator, taking the audience between different locations and framing scenes with character state of mind explanations. In lieu of stage directions, lighting, scenery and other theatrical devices to convey change and movement to an auditorium, far more of Faulks’s original text is preserved and read by the author to link passages and scenes together.
Some may find it intrusive but in many ways it is an elegant solution, one that lovers of the novel will particularly relish, creating tone, atmosphere and pacing while allowing the audience to bask in those beautifully constructed sentences. This is used particularly well during the pivotal Somme sequence, and rather than attempt to recreate the carnage, fear and disorientation of a full-scale attack, Faulks reads an abridged version of the scene from the pages of his book. It is an ideal choice, and with Birdsong Online first broadcast on the 104th anniversary of the most destructive day in British military history, it is a decision that showcases the evocative nature of Faulks’s prose, allowing the audience to imagine what the compromised conditions of lockdown filming could never hope to replicate. It is sad and tragic, far more powerful for not being seen and a great tribute to one of the book’s most thought-provoking and immersive passages.
This is supported by effectively dramatising the letters to loved ones which Faulks’s various characters write on the eve of battle. It is an especially poignant moment in the novel as men write with varying degrees of honesty about their fears, some choosing to express their worries while others reach for the platitudes and stock phrases of good cheer. It is Faulks’s very creditable equivalent of Shakespeare’s night before Agincourt in Henry V in which the men ponder the challenge to come. In Birdsong Online, the actors deliver parts of these letters to a camera that cuts between the cast members, merging and layering their narratives to create one of the most affecting sequence. Using so much of Faulk’s original text helps to emphasise the broader cost of war to men of all ages, rank and class, showing how this contemplative process of writing, for some, became their last ever recorded words.
In designing the visual impression of the war, directors Alastair Whately and Charlotte Peters utilise a variety of graphic backdrops created by David Woodhead to move the characters between locations. These are most effective during the sequences set in the trench systems of 1914-1918 where the visual design uses perspective to create a feeling of depth as snaking duckboards retreat into the distance or the interior of dugouts help to create a feeling of place. Crucially, they rarely detract from the story and in shades of brown that represent the churned earth and wooden architecture of this environment, the tonality blends well with the actors’ uniforms, enhancing the feeling of immersion in the story.
Whately and Peters’s choices are most effective in the tunneling sections, where Stephen and Tipper join Jack Firebrace and Arthur Shaw below ground. Plunging the frame into complete darkness, only the performers’ mud-stained faces are visible as they listen-out for enemy action through the walls, implying well the feeling of claustrophobia and vulnerability that the soldiers experience. This is even more important in the story’s powerful final section as Jack and Stephen complete their story arc beneath No Man’s Land. The tension generated in these sequences brings Faulks’s novel to life with both clarity and intensity, sometimes cutting between the characters in full-screen and sometimes placing their reactions side-by-side – these are some of the few moments in which the filming platform intrudes into the story but in the darkness of the tunnels it looks almost as though the men are in close proximity to one another.
The chronology of the novel was previously altered for the stage, and while Faulks’s text opens with the doomed adulterous liaison between Stephen and his host’s wife Isabelle, Wagstaff retains her version, sublimating this section within the war narrative as a series of memories returning to the protagonist. This has mixed results; although largely well-acted, the backdrops to these sequences are a little cartoony, they feel hollow in comparison to the wartime experience as this unlikely relationship progresses too rapidly to be credible and becomes a little stilted. Faulks spends over a 100-pages on the affair in which he establishes the conditions of his central character’s future journey. Reconstructing the narrative gives Birdsong Online a more dramatic opening, plunging the audience instantly into the combative experience, but reducing the impact of the relationship to a series of misty-eyed memories lessens its intensity, noting Stephen’s psychological driver but never letting the audience truly feel its value.
His emotional response to war and its salvational effect in reviving his connection to the world is also a little mixed-up; in the book this comes only partially from confronting and resolving his lingering feeling for the woman who had earlier abandoned him. The novelised Stephen, far from mooning over his lost love, had grown ‘cold’ in the years leading up to 1914 and is no longer passionately in love with Isabelle as presented here. Instead the wartime Stephen is almost statuesque, and having shut himself off from the external this gives him an emptiness that allows him to observe the inevitable intersection of his conflict and romantic experiences almost from outside himself.
Tom Kay is a pretty good Stephen, charting the conflicted soul of a man not quite in the world reflecting on the youthful naivety of his earlier self. There is a Merchant Ivory quality to Kay that suits this period and he makes the audience understand the complexity of Stephen’s characters and care for the outcome. However, Tim Treloar is really the star of Birdsong Online with a touching performance as the decent but afflicted Jack Firebrace, a good ordinary working man whose simple need to return to his wife and son are powerfully afflicted by the vagaries of fate. The sense Treloar gives of Jack’s decency and thankfulness even as he receives the worst news reveals acres of feeling that are often heartbreaking to watch.
There are some small but colourful performances from Stephen Boxer as the duped Azaire, managing to suggest a great deal with only a couple of scenes, Max Bowden as the terrified Tipper too young to know what he had gotten himself into, as well as Samuel Martin and Liam McCormick as Jack’s team Evans and Shaw who develop a great sense of dependable and vital comradeship. The reworking of the love story drains the character of Isabelle leaving the slightly too modern looking Madeline Knight with little to do but weep whereas Faulks’s original had more layers of duty, guilt, obligation and even entitlement to the passion she developed for her young guest.
With profits donated to the Royal British Legion, Birdsong Online is a really engaging experience, one that brings this beloved novel to life with invention and sensitivity. More than the stage show or the TV adaptation, this adaptation puts Faulks’s text at its heart not only lifting the story and dialogue but accessing the horrifying beauty of his prose to help the audience to visualise the wider war happening beyond the frame. In that sense Birdsong Online is extremely successful, navigating between the story, the technology used to deliver it and the imagination of the audience needed to believe it. Written more than a quarter of a century ago, Birdsong remains one the great modern novels and here somewhere between theatre and film its legacy, and that of the Great War, lives ever on.