Written by Emily Sutton on 17 December 2010 in Culture
A review of Trevor Nunn's stage adaptation of Birdsong, one of the most powerful novels ever written about the First World War

Directed by Trevor Nunn, adapted by Rachel Wagstaff, and starring Ben Barnes, Nicholas Farrell, Genevieve O'Reilly and Lee Ross

Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong is one of the most celebrated novels of modern time. So Rachel Wagstaff's theatrical adaption, directed by Trevor Nunn at the Comedy Theatre, was always going to divide opinion. Many expressed a concern that it would not live up to Faulks's masterpiece.

The play is separated into three sections following the life of Stephen Wraysford. We first encounter Stephen when he is staying with a factory-owning family, the Azaires, in 1910 Amiens, France. It isn't long before the young Englishman falls in love with Isabelle, his host's mistreated and abused wife. Their affair intensifies, against a backdrop of industrial unrest at the Azaire factory, culminating in the husband exposing the affair. Stephen and Isabelle leave the house to start a new life together. However, Isabelle becomes unsure of the relationship and flees.

We next see Stephen during the First World War in 1916 in the lead-up to the Battle of the Somme. We meet an aged and altered Stephen, now a lieutenant in the British Army. He is affected by the horrors of war and the love he lost. Various other characters are introduced including Farrell's Captain Gray and Lee Ross as Jack, a sapper. As the battle nears and Stephen learns the officers have underestimated the amount of explosives needed to destroy the wire, he must send his men to their certain death. He turns to his love of Isabelle to give him strength as he leads his men blindly to their fate.

As the second part ends the lights in the theatre come up, but nobody moves. They sit in silence reading the roll of names that are projected onto the screen. These are the names of the British servicemen who lost their livesat the Somme, a truly moving touch that will bring tears to the eyes.

Ben Barnes, best known as Prince Caspian from the Narnia films, takes on the role as Stephen. Barnes is uncomfortable during the first section of the play, which is regrettably weak as it fails to capture the true passion between Stephen and Isabelle. However, Barnes soon finds his stride during the better paced First World War scenes.

However, the real star of this adaption is Lee Ross. His performance of the sapper Jack is outstanding and draws both laughs and a real sense of sadness.

Although the first section is shaky, in the war scenes Faulks' fans will not be disappointed. John Napier's sets are simple but work so effectively that the audience is transported to the horrors and frustrations of war.

In the final section, Stephen volunteers to help the sapper Jack lay some explosives under the German position. The two become trapped underground with Jack fatally injured. Above ground the war has ended, the battlefield deserted apart from a Jewish German soldier who is trying to find his brother's body. The solider hears Stephen's blast and digs down to them. After a moment of frightened tension the two man embrace over Jack's lifeless body - swearing "never again" will the world see this level of war.

This is where Wagstaff's adaption ends; she has chosen to omit the story of Stephen's granddaughter, who in Faulks' novel uncovers the story of her granddad. However, at three hours long, it was a necessary sacrifice and the play doesn't miss anything for it.

Birdsong is playing at the Comedy Theatre until 15 January

Tags: Birdsong, First World War, Issue 31, Sebastian faulks, Theatre, Trevor Nunn

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