wed 12/08/2020

Birdsong, The Original Theatre Company online review – a gutsy experiment | reviews, news & interviews

Birdsong, The Original Theatre Company online review – a gutsy experiment

Birdsong, The Original Theatre Company online review – a gutsy experiment

Socially distanced version of Sebastian Faulks novel clips along at a fair pace

Letting his eyebrows do most of the acting: Tom Kay in BirdsongThe Original Theatre Company

Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ best-selling First World War novel, has been adapted quite a few times in its twenty-seven years. First came the TV series in 2012, starring Eddie Redmayne and Clémence Poésy; then there was Sir Trevor Nunn’s 2010 stage production for the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. This new digital Birdsong coincides with the anniversary as well, but otherwise it’s quite unlike the others – and, indeed, unlike any other pre-pandemic play.

The effort to produce a socially distanced show must have been monumental. Brought together in less than six weeks, this is an adaptation of an adaptation, the Original Theatre Companys 2013-2018 touring production re-edited for the small screen by original playwright Rachel Wagstaff. The actors, as producer and co-director Alastair Whatley points out in a behind-the-scenes (behind-the-screens?) video, had to do everything themselves, serving as their own lighting operators, sound assistants, and hair and make-up artists; working around newborn children and roadworks outside their windows. They couldn’t even look each other in the eye while filming the short, well-paced scenes. Instead, they were playing to their phones, concealed laptops (not particularly period, unfortunately) relaying their scene partners’ lines. Pretending to gaze into somebody else’s eyes while actually being forced to look at your own face: there’s a metaphor here somewhere, but the show’s too polite to mention it. 

Madeleine Knight as Isabelle in Birdsong for the Original Theatre CompanyThe play starts, as the TV adaptation did, not with the book’s gentle opening in pre-war Amiens, but in the hell of the trenches in the run-up to the Somme. We follow Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay), a British officer who’s been to this part of the world before – six years before, to be precise, when he had an affair with a married woman, Isabelle (Madeleine Knight, pictured right), whose husband (Stephen Boxer) beat her. Again, the attempt to convey a passionate romance without any physical proximity deserves praise, but there’s an imbalance: Knight sells a convincing mix of resigned practicality and unbeatable hope, where Kay lets his formidable eyebrows do most of the acting for him. Also at the Front is Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar, pictured below right, with Max Bowden), a miner from East London who helped dig the Central Line tunnels. Treloar’s performance is pitched well, particularly his understated, fiercely affectionate relationship with fellow sapper Arthur Shaw (Liam McCormick). It’s the First World War, so you know some people are going to die, but the timing of those deaths is just random enough to keep you on your toes. 

Whatley and co-director Charlotte Peters’ efforts, as well as Tristan Shepherd’s ingenious editing, ensure the show clips along at a good trot. The format lends itself to scenes that take place underground, which is lucky, because quite a lot of them do – Stephen’s infantrymen are roped in to defend the miners from German attacks, and he goes along with them, pulled by a morbid curiosity. The flash of the actors’ teeth and the whites of their eyes in the crushing darkness surrounding them, their panicky gasps when things go wrong, their hoarse whispers as they try to distract themselves from the weight of the earth on top of them – here, form aligns perfectly with content. If only the whole thing was set fifty feet underground.

Max Bowden (L) and Tim Treloar in Birdsong for the Original Theatre CompanyAt times, it feels as if Wagstaff has left too much out in streamlining Faulks’ 400-page novel into a tight 140 minutes. The loss of Michael Weir, the miners’ captain and Stephen’s best friend, is a shame, as it removes a key element of Stephen’s humanity. Faulks himself narrates certain sections that would have been impossible to recreate, which disrupts the story somewhat (although perhaps that’s the point). There’s also not enough birdsong for my liking, at the risk of sounding like a disgruntled ornithologist. But equally, this is an experiment, and above all a fundraiser, to make up for the hundreds of pounds of revenue lost to corona. Self-filmed clips in hundreds of separate homes could be the future of theatre – if they are, this is no bad start.

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