Bury St Edmunds: Birdsong is a masterpiece in every respect
- Credit: Archant
Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
Wednesday, April 23
It’s a few miles behind the front line, Western France, 1916.
Half a dozen Tommies are relaxing with a few vins or weak beer, singing songs and reading or writing letters.
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The audience instantly understands their camaraderie but can only begin to guess what has led to it.
Artillery shells whistle overhead and explode nearby, flashes sear the retina; the audience can’t help but duck.
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The scene changes and we are suddenly transported those few miles to the front, where Jack Firebrace and his best mate Arthur are arguing who’s going to stand the watch.
Firebrace wins the argument and takes sentry duty – a reversal of the norms of “winning” that only extreme privation and comradeship can explain. Firebrace falls asleep from sheer exhaustion, only to be kicked awake by Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford and faced with the prospect of court martial and being shot at dawn.
And so begins the Original Theatre Company’s production of Birdsong, running for six exhausting performances in four days this week.
Birdsong must be one of the most-read books in recent years, and so most audiences will know the story.
The trick in adapting a literary work for the stage is to condense 500 pages of complex themes into something that will keep an audience gripped.
Rachel Wagstaff first adapted the book for the West End stage, but revised it for the Original Theatre Company two years ago.
In this revised version, the pre-war love story between Stephen and Isabelle is told only by flashbacks as Stephen faces moments of extreme stress (his near-death and rescue by Firebrace, his wounding and recovery in hospital, and finally his battle-weariness).
It worked for me as I knew the book; I wondered whether it would work for those who didn’t, but my companion confirmed that it worked for her too. The modern section is left out altogether – a wise move.
The production is a masterpiece in every respect.
The set, more complex than is common these days particularly for a touring production, accommodates both the mechanics and the atmosphere of every scene.
The lighting and special effects, forming an integral part of the story, deliver shocks whenever they are needed.
Music was a huge part in the life of the Tommy, whether as a marching song or drinking song, the quiet ballad that thinks of home, or a scratchy shellac 78 on a wind-up gramophone; the cast both individually and collectively supplied that haunting music with heart-stopping beauty.
Every scene on stage carried the essence of the book, but the love scene in the first act and the final tunnel scene were outstanding as masterpieces of direction.
But above everything else, each character was played with colour and intensity, subtlety and nuance, leaving us the audience amused and inspired, shocked and surprised, appalled and horrified so that finally, when we’d had our heart ripped out, it felt as though there was nothing left at all.
Outstanding. Stunning. Superb.