Creating the trenches for touring: how Birdsong came to life

The producer of the final tour of the adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ seminal First World War novel explains the challenges within the show’s staging

2014 production shots
2014 production shots
© Jack Ladenburg

Marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, Birdsong is now undertaking its final tour, following three previous tours at 74 theatres. It is a mesmerising story of love and courage set both before and during the First World War and based on the world famous novel by Sebastian Faulks.

The set design of Birdsong created a huge challenge with multiple locations including trenches, tunnels, a field hospital and interiors, balanced against the needs of touring. Harmonising what we wanted audiences to see and emote with all the expectations associated with the novel, required creating something both adaptable and aesthetically pleasing.

We settled on creating naturalistic environments including the tunnels which are integral to the plot. With Victoria Spearing (set designer) and Alastair Whatley (director) we spent many hours discussing how we could achieve this and as inevitably happens, the simplest of ideas worked best. The tunnels are made up of one central timber frame following through to a static underground tunnel, clever lighting in the form of strategically placed flicker candles and handheld storm lanterns giving the illusion of the depth and claustrophobia required.

Final model box
Final model box

Alastair and Rachel Wagstaff (the adaptor) also had to set rules to understand the logic of the play using memories as a device. If we leave the real time of the play 1916 to 1918 and go back to 1910 to the world of the memory, how do you then leap forward to a different geographical location and then return to the memory?
All the time we had to be conscious that there may be too much happening whilst not wanting to lose the story or confuse the audience, Alastair introduced a live musician and movement to aid transition from one location to another.

The design process involved many discussions with the whole creative team, including the producers and production manager to ensure that it was practical for touring. We started out with concept sketches and ideas that used strong symbols and representation of the settings, and this evolved through the white card to a final world seamlessly changing between locations creating powerful images.

Initial concept sketch from Victoria Spearing
Initial concept sketch from Victoria Spearing

The set itself is a modular design that breaks into components for loading into a 13.6m trailer (it only just fits!) and one benefit of a war-torn world is that the odd knock or scratch on a get-in is not detrimental to the aesthetic!

The set itself contracts and expands depending on the venue it is in, the side walls change angles and we can extend the textured floor to work with thrust stages such as Bristol Old Vic and West Yorkshire Playhouse, without compromising the design.

The world the team created is heavily supported by the explosive sound design (shaking the audience and the theatre!) by Dominic Bilkey of the National Theatre, as well as beautifully sculpted lighting design by Alex Wardle, topped off with metres of barbed wire and sandbags!

Birdsong begins its UK tour on 31 January at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. It then tours up and down the country until 10 July, where it finishes at the Bristol Old Vic.

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