Rachel Wagstaff's adaptation of Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong, now on its fourth tour, is an excellent example of how to turn a 400-page novel into a play of little more than two hours stage time. Whilst being totally sympathetic to the mood and spirit of the novel, Wagstaff is ruthless in cutting and creative in finding structural connections for the stage.
Birdsong the novel operates in three different time periods. In 1910 the young Stephen Wraysford stays with the Azaire family in Amiens to learn about the textile industry and finds that Rene Azaire's much younger wife, Isabelle, is discontented with married life for good reason – an affair ensues, abruptly broken off by Isabelle. In 1916 and the ensuing years Wraysford is a lieutenant on the Western Front, near to Amiens. Connections are made with his past, though the main focus is on the Battle of the Somme and the parallel life of Jack Firebrace, a sapper tunnelling below the battlefield in terrifying conditions. Finally, in the 1970s, Stephen's granddaughter attempts to make sense of her life by understanding her grandfather's.
Wisely, Wagstaff discards the 1970s episodes, but her great inspiration is to see the Battle of the Somme and the return to Amiens as the hinge for her play. The action begins in war, Stephen – enigmatic, unresponsive – is severely wounded and his thoughts turn to what he has to live for – Isabelle? From then on the action of 1916 and memories of 1910 alternate and overlap, until they merge as he comes back to Amiens and his personal love-story reaches some kind of a resolution. Within this structure, though some of the more ambitious elements in Faulks' novel disappear, the message of the inhumanity of war actually comes through more strongly.
Alastair Whatley's production, now revived and re-cast by Charlotte Peters, is very much a team affair. The ensemble of twelve actors, many playing two main parts and other bits and pieces, works together with unselfish skill. Tom Kay's Stephen, despite moments of screaming passion, conveys his mental agonies via a subdued tension for much of the time. Tim Treloar as Jack is more expansive, leading drunken singsongs between heroic acts of loyalty. Madeleine Knight's Isabelle is all intensity. The pre-war bourgeois household is especially well conveyed, with portrayals of odious self-righteous respectability from Martin Carroll (Rene Azaire) and Jeffrey Harmer (his town councillor neighbour) – both do a neat double as British officers.
Victoria Spearing's set is part of an honourable tradition of impressionistic World War sets that go back to Augustus John's famous Silver Tassie designs in 1929 – and it's practical, too. Dominic Bilkey's sound and Alex Wardle's lighting ratchet up the drama for a production that revels equally in the explosive and the meditative, as in the moving stillness at the conclusion of each act.
Birdsong runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse until 17 February before touring until 17 July.