BWW Review: BIRDSONG, Bristol Old Vic
"Some crime against nature is about to be committed": true not only on the eve of the Somme in WWI, but of warfare now and forever.
Birdsong, based on the novel by Sebastian Faulks, is a brutal and beautiful observation of war and remembrance, with this new revival touring in time for the Armistice centenary this November.
The stage version is at best a liberal abridgement of Faulks's book: in Rachel Wagstaff's reworking, the novel's naturalistic narrative style is lost to the non-chronological structuring, with warfare acting as the frame for Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford's affair with the beautiful but unavailable Isabelle in France a few years earlier.
The effort to adapt an orderly if episodic plot into an analeptic play is fitting - memory and memorials are often a metaphor in the fictionalising of warfare - yet only fleetingly effective in practice.
The play opens on the Western Front in the throes of war when Stephen - a starkly stoical Tom Kay - is at his most traumatised and emotionally sterile, and with warfare structurally at the forefront, the affair plot feels like an afterthought; unfamiliar and fanciful, rather than a formative experience with future influence.
There is impressive realism in Victoria Spearing's versatile set, with trenches and tunnels evoked via Alex Wardle's low-level lighting and visceral sound from Dominic Bilkey. The multi-purpose, moveable set pieces and props paint a vivid, fast-moving picture of Stephen's past in pre-war France.
It's in the stilted structuring and staging where the intensity is lost: there's little tension in the narrative as it flits from warfare to affair, and the stylistic elements - like the united, ill-fated letter writing from the front at the close of Act I - feel emotionally stunted as the staging around them is so momentary.
Tension takes time to mature, and it's in the moments free from the fast-moving pace that feel the most powerful. Stephen's last visit to Madeleine Knight's beautifully vulnerable Isabelle is laced with loss, voiced in Stephen's longing "Can I touch you?" and achingly echoed in a silence that symbolises all that's been lost between them.
Away from Stephen and Isabelle, a small but able ensemble are brave and brash as the brothers-in-arms and fraught as the French family at the centre of the affair, with Alfie Browne-Sykes's tormented infantryman Tipper and Simon Lloyd and Tim Treloar's sentimental sappers particularly impressive.
With folksy refrains from violinist James Findlay woven throughout, from the moving and mournful to the rousing, Birdsong is visually beautiful, evocative and affecting, and visceral in its brutality and effects, but its form feels off-balance and all too fleeting: all's not fair in love and war after all.
Photo credit: Jack Ladenburg