The story and structure of Birdsong throws down the gauntlet for any dramatist adapting it under lockdown conditions; its adulterous romance and epic re-enactment of the Battle of the Somme requires necessary human contact, and at close quarters.
Perhaps there is no better writer to have adapted Sebastian Faulks’s bestselling novel for this socially distanced online production than Rachel Wagstaff, who has adapted it twice before, once for the West End in 2010 and again for a tour in 2013. This third revival was made in social isolation in less than six weeks.
Directed by Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters, it is innovative from the start in the way it uses cameraphones and green screens, on which backdrops are added.
The switches in time and place are clear and distinct, from the trenches and tunnels of the battlefield to the Azaire family household, where the young Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay) has his affair with the unhappily married Isabelle Azaire (Madeleine Knight), and from the heat of war to its cold aftermath.
First world war sappers appear on split screens as they crawl along torch-lit tunnels, while, on the night before the Somme, soldiers are hauntingly shown in boxes, reading out letters to wives, mothers and lovers, that effectively – and movingly – become their goodbyes.
The central illicit relationship between Stephen and Isabelle is played well enough within the confines of the split screens, though it feels sudden and premature when Stephen confesses, at their first meeting alone: “I would do anything for you.”
The male camaraderie of war is much more poignant and the strongest scenes come with the storyline of sapper Jack Firebrace, who is played by Tim Treloar with just the right mix of voluble comedy and silent despair.
There are musical moments, too, from soldiers playing the flute to violins and song, and this brings theatricality but also slows down the pace of the drama which, at two-and-a-half hours, feels long.
The most jarring element, however, comes in the intermittent narration by Sebastian Faulks, which can seem like snatches of an audiobook latched on to a play. His omniscient voice sounds over-literary at times (“Sleep came to him suddenly like an unseen assailant”) and lacks the emotional expressiveness of the actors.
At the end of the first half, there is original footage of soldiers waiting to go over their trenches, into the brave and bloody battle of the Somme. It provides a potent moment of dramatic pause, but what follows is an extended narration by Faulks, set against the image of a soldier walking into the field, along with images of commemorative lists of the dead and gravestones. It is unclear whether this is part of the drama or an official pause from it, and while the documentary footage and narration are powerful, they combine oddly to push us out of the story.
Narration is far more successful when characters voice it, especially in the bedroom scene between Stephen and Isabelle, in which they describe the physical act of passion in turn, and also in the final scenes between Stephen and a Jewish German soldier which brim with pain and poignancy.