By Jeremy Miles
This is a triumph! Rachel Wagstaff’s stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks' best selling novel Birdsong brings the murderous madness of the First World War battlefields on the Western Front into sharp focus.
Faulks’ poignant story of love, loss and inhuman suffering has been reworked as a magnificent piece of multilayered theatre in this touring production by the Original Theatre Company.
Under director Alastair Whatley, a strong cast, powerful set, superb lights and sound combine to make this story of young English officer Stephen Wraysford thrown into the horrors of war on the rebound from a passionate affair into a compelling stage drama.
Edmund Wiseman is brilliant as Wraysford who is fighting not only the German army but his own demons as he prepares to lead his men - a rag-taggle bunch of horribly ill-equipped volunteers - over the top into the hellfire of the Battle of the Somme. It will be battle so fierce that as the verdant French countryside is turned into a muddy morass strewn with broken bodies it even silences the ever-present sound of birdsong.
The sense of fear and hopelessness is tangible as, during the stand-out scene of the play, the men - office boys, farm-workers, labourers and shop assistants - write what may be their final letters home.
Wraysford clings desperately to the memory of his lost lover, Isabelle Azaire, the abused wife of a French factory owner, and the pre-war affair that brought them a few brief months of happiness. Their story is told through a series of seamless flashbacks with Emily Bowker as the trapped wife forced to abandon all for love and some kind of freedom.
Back at the front Wraysford is stationed amid shattered trenches at a command post controlling a network of tunnels snaking beneath no-man’s land. A team of sappers - “sewer rats” - crawl into the darkness to lay explosive charges beneath enemy lines.
Among their number is the honest, decent and dutiful Jack Firebrace. In a standout performance by Peter Duncan we discover that Firebrace is endlessly resourceful, steadfast in the face of adversity and remains almost inconceivably strong as he receives heartbreaking news from the home-front. He offers compassion and support to his comrades and looks on in distraught resignation as they die one by one.
His own death…in agony, paralysed and trapped in the filth, darkness and rubble of a sabotaged tunnel is so unjust that it somehow stands as a metaphor for the whole mindless and disgraceful slaughter of war.
The message of this play, and Faulks’ book, is clear. As we prepare to commemorate next year’s centenary of the Battle of the Somme - a campaign that claimed the lives of nearly 20,000 British soldiers on the first day of fighting alone - we must never forget and we must never allow such horrors to happen again.
Sadly, it only takes a glance at the TV news to see that the brutal inhumanity of war lives on.