France in 1910 is the initial setting for this First World War drama based on Sebastian Faulks's novel of the same name and adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff.
A young man, Stephen Wraysford has been despatched by his guardian in England to Amiens in France to work in a factory. He's accommodated in the home of the factory owner, René Azaire, who is not only a ruthless businessman but also turns his hand to wife beating in his spare time. It's no surprise then that Wraysford falls in love with battered wife, Isabelle, and when their liaison is discovered by Azaire they take off to start a new life together. However, the course of love rarely runs smoothly and before long Stephen finds himself alone. The next time we catch up with him he's in the army and the First World War has started. The remainder of the play focuses on life in the trenches, taking us through catastrophically indecisive battles and on to the war's conclusion.
At a sliver short of 3 hours the play seems rather long, though, to be fair, it passes very quickly which for me at least is always a sign that I am pretty-well absorbed by a show. The first third of the play is taken up with Stephen's and Isabelle's meeting and subsequent love affair. Though it's essential to build-up that relationship, it is not nearly as strong in dramatic terms as the second and third acts set, for the most part, in the trenches. In fact, the gear change between acts 1 and 2 almost makes you feel like you've stepped into another play altogether.
As one would expect with a celebrated director – Trevor Nunn – in charge, there's plenty of tension, well-tuned performances and well-orchestrated action. John Napier's design is based largely on evocative slides projected onto the back cloth, and tunnels are ingeniously described. There's also a terrific effect at the end of act 1 which heralds the start of hostilities.
Although I found Ben Barnes's youthfully romantic Wraysford a little unconvincing in the first act, things change significantly once we discover him in the trenches. There he's a war-weary, demoralised officer who refuses leave and is rapidly descending into a psychological abyss. In contrast, Lee Ross's excellent Jack Firebrace is a soldier who, in spite of personal suffering and anguish, proves to be extraordinarily courageous and loyal. Nicholas Farell provides excellent support playing the creepily ruthless Azaire as well as Captain Gray who tries to look-out for the dispirited Wraysford, at least as far as his orders will allow.
Of course there have been many plays, poems and even a musical about the excruciating horror and tragedy of the First World War. For most people, what is most shocking and heart-rending is the sheer scale of the loss of life, caused for the most part by military decision-making that, with hindsight, beggars belief. The basic strategy seems to have been to throw as many men into the fray as possible in the hope that an inch or two of ground could be won. The result was that hundreds of thousands lost their lives, often in a matter of minutes. 'Birdsong' captures this tragedy, futility and loss, not only in the action, but in the poignant roll call of names which scrolls up the front cloth.
'Birdsong' is certainly moving, and the second and third acts are gripping. But I was left wondering what new insights the play reveals about the horrendous events and suffering that comprised the First World War. As a reminder and a warning it has obvious relevance, but at least for me, there's nothing in the way of a fresh perspective.
"This stage version strikes me as cumbersome and unnecessary."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"It is the existence of goodness in a living hell that gives the story its power. The play is also staged with simple ingenuity...And the performances throughout are good."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Touching but overlong."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Ambitious Sir Trevor Nunn takes an imaginative stab at the tale. But in the end it proves a noble failure."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail