For many theatre goers, through The Original Theatre Company taking their production of Birdsong to The Theatre Royal in Winchester, they were attempting an entirely insurmountable task. To take a novel and turn it into another medium takes skill, sensitivity and sensibility. But to take a novel that is as vast, ambitious, graphic and well-loved as Birdsong and turn it into a medium as restricted to the stage, success is nigh on impossible.
And to be fair to them, they nearly nailed it.
For those of you who don’t know the narrative, the beautifully written and sensual novel by Sebastian Faulkes charts the life of Stephen, a young Englishman who embarks upon a dangerous liaison with the wife of his employer during his stay in France, only for them to be torn asunder by forces beyond their control. One of the main forces is the outbreak of the First World War, during which, Stephen finds himself as an officer working alongside tunnelers who are attempting to blow the Germans to smithereens.
To condense a story so monstrous and marvellous takes mastery, and the stage production had to take this 800 page beast of a book and make it not only fit in the time restraints, but to also maintain the entirely effecting storyline. To add to this, they had to transport its audience from a French château, to trench, to tunnel, to inn, and back again without their rapt spectators ever suspecting a thing.
It was in this expertly mastered transitions from location to location that this production really outdid itself. It was not all bells or whistles, but immensely subtle in its movement from one space to another. The set itself was well suited to capturing the indoor and outdoor spaces, and the use of lighting was able to recreate the oppressive and ominous environment of the three foot wide tunnels that the soldiers found themselves in, and the vast open spaces of the château’s grounds in such a way that made the audience become truly lost in the story.
However the protagonist, who is the focal point of Faulkes’ story, was probably the only weak link in this well crafted narrative chain. Stephen’s character is meant to be reckless, loving, passionate, daring, self-effacing and normal all at the same time, a task that proved too much for the George Banks, the actor playing this man. In almost everything Stephen did, it was overacted in a way that verged on farcical. It was hard to believe that anybody would fall in love with him as a passionate and giving lover, or respect him as an aloof but caring officer, or be fearful of him in the context of war. As the whole plot hinges on this one man’s experiences of France pre and post-war, it made the overall feeling a little off – I certainly did not find myself identifying with him.
The rest of the cast however, were absolutely sterling. In particular, Selma Brook who played both Lisette, the step-daughter of Stephen’s love interest Isabelle, and a prostitute to relieve the men of France, showed an impressive ability to become her character, and she was entirely convincing as both. Her transition from flirtatious and girly school girl to sultry and lackadaisical prostitute who is doing what she must because of the war, was completely affecting. In a way, her playing both characters was apt, representing how many children of France were not given the opportunity to be childish, literally giving over their bodies to the war effort to survive. Another highlight was Firebrace, a tunneler played by Peter Duncan whose narrative almost became the focal point, and I found my eyes welling up at the various terrible and turbulent experiences he had whilst on the front line.
Although the task facing this production company was massive, in many ways, they did as well as they could possibly do with the space and resources available. If it hadn’t been for the poorly enacted protagonist, I would have been entirely convinced by this adaptation, but it simply could not be overlooked – there was barely a minute where the focus was not upon Stephen, which meant that overall, it fell short of expectations.