Six things we learned about Birdsong and the First World War

Birdsong brings to the stage the war that did not end all wars… Photographs: Jack Ladenburg
27 Mar 2014 @ 9.11 am
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Birdsong brings to the stage the war that did not end all wars… Photographs: Jack Ladenburg
Birdsong brings to the stage the war that did not end all wars… Photographs: Jack Ladenburg

alastair-whatleyBirdsong, the epic tale of romance and war pivoted around the Battle of the Somme, is currently wowing audiences in York. We spoke to director Alastair Whatley and this is what he told us about the play and the First World War…


The war is ‘more distant – and closer’

There’s so much more media coverage of the war at the moment [because of the 100th anniversary] – it’s at the forefront of people’s consciousness.

It means audiences are much more primed before they come in, so that they’re more emotionally attuned to the piece before it starts. The war has got more distant and yet it’s closer.

What Birdsong does is allow you in on a personal angle. You follow two men – Jack Firebrace and Stephen Wraysford – through the war. You get to feel what it was like to go through that.

It’s like taking a name off the war memorial and throwing it on to the stage and giving it life for two hours.

It was a justified war

I’m pretty pragmatic on the subject. If you take the first day of the Somme, it’s hard to justify that loss of life. And yet through that loss of life – it was like shoehorning our way through these bloody iron gates spurred in the modern world.

I think the war was needed and was necessary, but the cost was hardly worth it. And the manner in which it was fought was like schoolboys growing up with toys that the didn’t understand.

The First World War is still fought with bayonets – but also with machine guns, tanks and aeroplanes.

The audience response is ‘amazing’

The audience find themselves leaping in and out from 1916 to 1910 very quickly. So would that work?

We just had to trust the audience to keep up. Fortunately, 99% of the time they do keep up and it does work.

When I watched it yesterday, at the end of the first half as the soldiers went over for the Battle of the Somme, there was a woman in front of me sitting very still with tears rolling down her cheek. Shocked, almost, by it.

I felt it was an amazing response from her and one that was a credit to what the actors had just done.

The lead role is ‘toughest for 20 years’

George Banks as Stephen, Carolin Stoltz as Isabelle
George Banks as Stephen, Carolin Stoltz as Isabelle

For George Banks, who plays Stephen, it’s one of the biggest asks of an actor that’s been written in the past 20 years.

He has got to play two conflicting stories side by side, scattering backwards and forwards, while being very precise.

Then he’s got to play both an epic love story – a romance, which is achieved with great delicacy – and live through the Battle Of The Somme. He has to do that eight times a week, and keep it fresh.

To keep the energy up, and to go where that part has to go emotionally by the end in the tunnel scene, is fiendishly difficult. He really rises to it.

‘History is never history’

We’ve lost any link we had to the First World War, but we mustn’t forget it. You look what’s happening in the Ukraine and Russia, and suddenly you see history repeating itself a hundred years on.

You’ve got the Eastern Bloc, you’ve got the European states vying to protect one side, and you’ve got the Russians lining up possibly with the Chinese on the other.

You’ve got a diplomatic stand-off. We need to remember exactly what the last diplomatic stand-off led to. I hope our politicians take heed.

History is never history.

The cast like a laugh

The rehearsal room had to be fun. You often find that rehearsal rooms for farces are the most serious places, and rehearsal rooms for big, heavy tragedies, or plays like this, are much lighter.

After living this sort of world for two and a half hours, we need the come down – it feels like a weight that is carried, and that weight needs to be shed in the bars of York.

We were out until quite late last night. I think it was called Dusk, where we ended up, having been to the Guy Fawkes before that and the Evil Eye. We enjoyed it.

It’s a beautiful city and a lovely theatre as well.