It’s now 100 years since the outbreak of World War 1, an anniversary which is quite rightly being commemorated on TV, radio and with tonight’s production on stage.
Even with the benefit of those grainy pictures being broadcast on the BBC and loads of earnest looking presenters wandering around the battle fields it’s almost impossible to comprehend the horror of it all. The outlook for the average soldier was pretty grim and even if you survived being shot at and/or bombed spending months ankle deep in mud, blood and lord knows what else whilst waiting to go ‘over the top’ must have been frankly unbearable.
Birdsong is set before, during and after all of this horror and it tells the story of an affair between a young Englishman and his French paramour. Somewhat unusually for a stage production the action shifts rapidly between the past and the present, often relying on instantaneous changes in the actors’ demeanour to convey these leaps to and fro. It’s an unsettling approach, which I guess is partially the point, one moment the lead character’s lying seriously injured in bed the next he’s getting down to some serious rumpy pumpy with his lover.
I won’t reveal any more plot details, suffice to say that the play pulls no punches when it comes to dealing with the horrors of what was obviously one of the most savage and brutal wars of all time. Speaking of which on more than one occasion I witnessed the audience collectively jump out of its skin at the volume and force of the (thankfully) simulated explosions that peppered the performance. At times I swear you could actually feel your seat vibrate with the force of the ‘blasts’. Just imagine if that noise had been amplified a dozen times and accompanied by thousands of red hot shards of shrapnel tearing through you and your mates eh? Equally powerful though was the performance of Peter Duncan who, depending on your age is perhaps better known as a presenter on Blue Peter or for his role as Chief Scout.
His portrayal of Jack Firebrace was particularly moving and understated, not an easy balance to achieve in a play so drenched in emotion. Kudos to George Banks in the lead role of Stephen Wraysford too. It can’t be easy to so radically change your emotions in a split second and whilst I personally found these shifts a little odd at times he did a fine job of moving between the very best and worst of times.
As with pretty much all productions at The REP the set’s simple but incredibly effective. Dominated by a silhouette of a fallen cross and tangled barbed wire it’s easy to lose yourself in the action and the clever use of lighting also heightens the mood at key points in the performance.
Birdsong is on at The REP until March 22nd. Tickets available here.
(All photos courtesy of Jack Ladenburg)