Reviews Bristol Published 1 May 2015


Bristol Old Vic ⋄ 27th April - 9th May 2015

With the precision of a Swiss clock.

Lucian Waugh
Credit: Jack Ladenburg

Credit: Jack Ladenburg

Fans of Edwin Starr need no telling that the good of war is absolutely nothing. Whereas fans of the English theatre, it seems, require the repetition of this message in the most blatant of terms. I went into Birdsong with the conviction that trench warfare is no day at the beach (for which, incidentally, we look forward to the 2044 productions commemorating the centenary of Omaha) and left with that conviction intact.

Had my birth occurred a hundred years ago I would, by this point, be up to my neck in it. This I know from a national curriculum that reduced human history to the causes of both world wars and the Tudors. Testimony reinforcing the point – in the form of documentary, films, novels, and certainly plays – is solemnly wheeled out once a year and we stand in silence and vow we shan’t forget. And rightfully so. Only an attention-seeking cynic would demand any other course. Sotto voce, we might feel it a pity that the same politicians who lay wreaths fail to connect this act to their decision-making on Middle Eastern intervention and the renewal of Trident. Yet even if the mass commemoration fails to inspire any tangible pacifism, at least it affords us a rare chance to bask in the warmth of our own compassion.

For at this point narcissism creeps in. The skyrocketing price of ceramic poppies on eBay begins to hint that our materialistic culture has created just another fetish. In the immediate wake of the war, there was a ruling caste that required discrediting. But today a conscript war is inconceivable and our problem is not too much trust in the powers that be but too little. War nostalgia does not ask us uncomfortable questions about our humanity but instead becomes the setting for tear-jerking invitations to shop at Sainsbury’s. This is more about us, and our need to feel a moralistic nostalgia than a sincere attempt to confront the barbarism of state-sponsored violence. What should be shocking instead becomes reassuringly familiar.

Every Great War stage production – and in the past year alone I have seen four – is committed to the entirely correct orthodoxy that the ’14-18 war was dismal. But let us not forget, these are not charitable acts of public catharsis but entertainments that charge for admission. Today’s war profiteers are just as likely to have Arts Council funding. Still, they only put on shows people want to see and the public appetite for the centenary is insatiable. With all this is mind, Birdsong is still a decent way to spend an evening. In a vast improvement on Sebastian Faulks’s ubiquitous novel of 1993, the play adopts a flashback structure where the hero Stephen Wraysford’s life in the aftermath of various battles is interspersed with his backstory. Thereby, for the handful of people yet to read the book or see the mumbling television adaptation, a narrative tension is handily created which almost, though not quite, obscures how contrived and hackneyed are most of Faulks’s plot devices. It must be said that on a technical level Alastair Whatley’s production puts on one hell of a show. Scenes intersperse with the dependable precision of a Swiss clock (though occasionally with the same emotional range), every cast member is note perfect, and Edmund Wiseman as the lead is quite unimpeachable.

The bangs are suitably loud such that my neighbour spilt her drink on me. Even the musical interludes are quite affecting in their own way, albeit rather infected by that peculiar singing style of which instruction must be mandatory in all of our theatre schools. It is something to do with the perfect articulation and earnest sincerity. The wider flaws must be laid at the door of the author. The coincidences that propel that narrative are brutally exposed in a compressed retelling and, not the first time, a preference for “staying true to the book” is a serious handicap when a more buccaneering attitude might have jettisoned what is obviously dross. For this reason, it is better to wait until the work is out of copyright and the author cannot veto any deviation.

At the 2014 Hay Festival, Sebastian Faulks reflected on the perilous exercise of adapting a novel: “Making books into films and plays and radio dramas is very fraught and it seldom works, and why would it? A novel is a form that uses inward lives and inward thoughts and takes you places you can’t go normally, right inside the mind and feelings of someone half your age and a different nationality in a different time. And film, as we know, is a two-dimensional medium which doesn’t use description at all, only uses dialogue.”

It is therefore rather sporting of him to invite assorted producers to prove him wrong. In the last twenty years this work has indeed been adapted for television, stage, and radio. Nonetheless, you can hardly a blame a man for wanting to maximise his profits, and adaptations, especially if they star Eddie Redmayne, are good for business. In this instance, to give him his due, Faulks was prepared to lead from the front: the great man himself put his head above the parapet in an uncredited one-night-only cameo. We’d been briefed beforehand that he was rather nervous but he played it manfully. In a supreme and unintended irony they dressed him up as a general and made him give a final address to the troops ahead of their going over the top at the Somme. As art imitated life, a principled desertion may have served the men better. So the bandwagon rolls on. Before 2018 arrives there will be much more of this thing. That still gives someone time to devise something a little less comfortable and a little more provocative that might even provoke some outrage instead of the same self-satisfied variations on a theme. If not, I fear more and more of us will take to uttering the phrase ‘never again’ for all the wrong reasons.


Birdsong Show Info

Directed by Alastair Whatley

Written by Rachel Wagstaff, adapted from Sebastian Faulks

Cast includes Edmund Wiseman, Emily Bowker, Selma Brook, Max Bowden and James Staddon.




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