Bittersweet Birdsong

Birdsong is not a tale of war, nor of love. It is a tale of anger, and how that immense feeling can manifest itself in multiple areas of life, in order to force us to grow. The theatre production of Sebastian Faulkes’s bestselling novel stands true to its well-respected reputation in this vibrant and moving performance.

Steven Wraysford is angry. His love for a married woman he is residing with in France in the build up to World War One and the horrors of the trenches, transform his life beyond comprehension, which is manifested in his emotional breakdown in the second act. In comparison with this, the sweet ‘Birdsong’ tweets throughout, in constant contrast of the hammering of shells and buzz of gunfire.

But this play isn’t just about Steven. Keeping to a structure similar to the original novel, the plot shifts between two time periods – prior to the war at around 1910, and during the war, 1916 – 18. The narrative flicks between the two, following the two separate parts of Steven’s life in France, and the intense contrast with his life in the army. Regularly, and to great effect, the scenes blur into one another, with the cast playing dual roles, and scenes sliding into the next, giving a fractured feel to the performance. The merging of two sets sees little differentiation between the two timelines, which adds to this disjointed perception.

The use of prayer and reading aloud written letters in the form of soliloquies adds a level of intimacy to the performance. The characters emotionally invest in the audience and convey the intense loneliness and vulnerability of the soldiers.

Memory is a regular theme, in particular regarding the repetition of phrases that trigger parallels between the two time periods. The phrases “Am I not pretty enough?” spoken by both the prostitute and Lisette Azaire. The ghosts of Steven’s past are echoed throughout the play with the repetition of “I love you,” “I always will,” between himself and Isabelle Azaire.

The incomprehensible nature of the First World War comes across throughout Steven’s heart-aching performance; his cry of “I WAS THERE!” displaying the pain of a conflict never previously experienced by anyone. Yet, with some comedic moments of the soldiers to try and make bearable their excruciating experience in the trenches, alongside the hilarity of Monsieur Berard’s singing, the mood is lifted slightly. The intense bravery, friendship and dedication demonstrated as Arthur’s body is dragged out of the tunnel encapsulate the silver lining of life; everything can be redeemed, there is hope in even the darkest of situations, and from anger and hate, can come love and peace.

The horrors of war, of love, and of losing and finding the meaning of life are explored through this superb adaptation. My second viewing was even better than the first – with no distinctions in quality to be made. The terribly bittersweet ending will haunt you long after you leave the theatre.


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