Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation brings to the Kings Theatre Sebastian Faulks’ classic tale of love and life in the trenches in an encapsulating performance that is a visual feast for the eyes. The production was outstanding. We are greeted with a striking backlit silhouette of the trenches, the lighting of which changes in colour to evoke moods and times of day, gently transitioning us for the cold dawn to the pink light of evening. The whole play centralises around juxtapositions; of life on the front line and back home, of class, age and of the thunderous sounds of war contrasted with the delicate beauty of a bird’s song. The non-linear narrative and the seamlessly blended montage of flashbacks heightened the sense of the horror of war, nostalgia, and heartbreak.
The appearance and detail of the set were sublime; no further imagination was required for the audience to envision themselves in the trenches of the First World War. Thanks to this set design, smoke-filled auditorium and the incessant bombings overheard Birdsong takes us back to that time in a visceral way, in a manner mediums such as television and film never can – a reminder of why theatre is so fundamentally important in our screen-driven world. Regardless, one of the lasting messages of Birdsong is that neither we nor the actors can ever truly understand the atrocities that happened in the trenches one hundred years ago. Indeed, this centenary anniversary of the war adds greater poignancy to the performance and gives the audience a new perspective on the unfathomable and senseless betrayal of humanity.
The acting and characterization was generally perfection from beginning to end. The only critique one could offer on such an otherwise convincing performance is that the initial scenes in which the lovers Isabelle (Madeleine Knight) and Stephen (Tom Kay) interact seem a little rushed. Perhaps, allowing more time to establish their sexual tension with dramatic pauses and lustful glances would have demanded the audience emotionally invest in their love affair further. However, the intensity of their relationship and suffering in the second act more than compensates for it and they truly manage to pull at the heartstrings of the audience. Yet it is the relationship between Stephen and Jack (Tim Treloar) that is the most gripping and ultimately heart-wrenching to watch. Although their accents and army rankings tell us they are from such different backgrounds these characters mirror each other throughout; both draw and both have lost someone close. Their journey together culminates in them stuck together in a tunnel faced with the prospect of impending death cowered back to back. The stripped back lighting for this scene merely illuminates their faces, creating such an immersive performance we find ourselves lost in as we pry on such a portrayal of an intimate moment of raw human vulnerability. It is the perfect illustration of how the war affected everyone in society, uniting a nation, a homage to the comradery of the estimated 6 million British troops who fought.
This visually astounding and immersive performance will remind you of the irreplaceable power of theatre.
Runs 8th-12th May
Image: Jack Ladenburg