Sebastian Faulks’s 1993 novel about the horrors of the First World War not only became a runaway bestseller but its success is ongoing. The novel already has modern classic status. It is also an A Level set text, which means that it is discovered by more and more young people every year. The first war poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are GCSE perennials too, so substantial numbers of young readers discover Birdsong at age 15 or 16 because its themes sit so well with the poetry.
And now we have Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of the novel for the stage, directed by Trevor Nunn, which I saw at Comedy Theatre earlier this week. (Read The Stage’s review - Ed.)
I expected to notice a whole new raft of student learning opportunities in the production and I wasn’t far wrong.
For a start, there are some interesting and ingenious design solutions (John Napier’s work) to the complex problems of how you present a piece whose first act is set in the peace of pre-war, middle-class Amiens and whose subsequent acts take place mostly in horrendously noisy trenches and tunnels.
There’s a lot here for design and technical students to learn from and think about in Napier’s use of projection together with huge, hinged, stage-based flaps which rise to silhouette against the photographs and drawings on the backdrop. The sound management - almost painfully, but appropriately, loud in places - is a theatrical tour de force too.
The show is also a good opportunity for students of all ages to see fine acting showcased. Ben Barnes is magnificent as Stephen Wraysford in a role which must be almost as large and emotionally demanding as Hamlet. The actor manages to capture all the nuances of this complex character - pretty well known to many audience members through multiple readings of the novel - as he moves from young lover to the tortured, agonised, uncomprehending anger of a man who has not only lost his lover but is trapped in a seemingly futile war in which almost all participants are doomed.
Students would do well to study Lee Ross’s outstanding work as the tragic, dignified, likeable Jack too. And these are just two out of a large number of good performances in a cast of fifteen.
There’s plenty here for students interested in, or working on, theatrical writing too. It’s a novel of epic proportions. How on earth do you adapt it as the ‘two hours (actually nearly three) traffic of our stage?’ As a case study, Wagstaff’s work, which adheres pretty closely to the novel, has a lot to teach.
Given the range of education and training opportunities in this show I suspect student parties will go in droves (There was an enthralled group behind me on Monday, for example - wonder if they noticed Sebastian Faulks two rows in front?) Could we, I wonder, have another The Woman in Black?