On April 1st I began a project I called #30plays30days whereby I would see and review at least one online show per day. Well, as of today I can call it #130plays130days because that’s how long it has extended itself to. (Actually, it’s #155plays130days but that doesn’t have the right sort of ring to it) For this auspicious occasion I thought I would catch up with Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong produced by Original Theatre Company and originally streamed to commemorate the 104th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
Faulk’s novel has been through many iterations including two staged versions in 2010 (West End) and 2013 (toured by OTC). In both cases the script was by Rachel Wagstaff who also does the honours here by adapting her own adaptation. There has been much love and care lavished on this project and considering the limitations imposed by following social distancing rules, the results are better than one might have expected. It’s a strange sort of hybrid, being not quite a film (but nearer to that than anything else) and not quite a play; although its stage origins are plain enough to see.
The actors videoed their parts separately and then the wizardry of the editing suite has brought them together. And so we get the, by now, familiar sight of actors appearing in their separate boxes side by side and sometimes stacked, acting towards a camera and lacking that vital spark that comes from interacting towards each other in the same space. Backgrounds, many of them in pleasing designs, are used to indicate when characters are together although the lack of action does grate a little such as when characters are punting on a river and, despite some choreographed pole action, they are clearly going nowhere. While this would work on stage it doesn’t on video. Luckily there are many sections of the piece which are set underground, so an inky blackness suffices. It is much easier to believe that characters are sharing the same space in these circumstances which gives the final scenes a much needed added edge to them. My main concerns, though, were how on earth they were going to shoot the intimate love scenes without contravening social distancing rules (quite well as it turns out) and how they were going to recreate the epic battle at the heart of the story. Well, they don’t. Rather we have an extended piece of narration with Sebastian Faulks himself reading the relevant chapter of his original novel. To be fair it’s hard to see what else they could have done but it still feels like a bit of a cop out; Faulk’s unemotional narration possibly doesn’t help. I’d be intrigued to know how this aspect was done in the staged versions.
As central character Stephen Wraysford, Tom Kay simmers with unrequited desires and an understated British reserve. He certainly looks as I imagined the character would, although generally I found his delivery rather too laid back. He comes into his own in the final tunnel scenes where he is particularly effective and affecting. Madeleine Knight as Isabelle again fulfils expectations as a hesitant but then passionate young woman trapped in an abusive marriage with Rene (the excellent Stephen Boxer). Strongest of all is Tim Treloar as sapper Jack Firebrace. I had feared a chirpy cockney cliché but Treloar’s performance was full of depth, nuance and humour – no mean feat when you’re acting solo to a camera in front of a green screen. If I’m honest, I actually found myself more engaged with his story than the main event.
One of the few films I managed to see before lockdown was Sam Mendes’ 1917 and I’m afraid any First World War story is going to suffer by comparison. Faulks and Wagstaff have rendered us a faithful recreation of the former’s novel and directors Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters have pulled out all the stops to make Birdsong as memorable as they can under the circumstances. Ii is an impressive effort but I wasn’t blown away as some of the critics have been and would still question whether it can truly be said to be online theatre. However, there is no doubting the production’s importance in forging a new form of entertainment for us all as we hurtle into the new normal.