Yesterday, I saw Birdsong in the Theatre Royal in Winchester.
I've read the book, seen the TV adaptation, and now the play. So is it fair to compare them?
Not really - they are different art forms. They take the same material (for those not familiar with Sebastian Faulks' book, it's set in the trenches of the World War 1 with flashbacks to an affair), even tell the same story, but they work with different tools. However, it is impossible for forget any encounter with this story before, even if it comes in a different shape.
A writer has nothing but words and white space on the page. And, of course, the imagination of the reader who must do some of the work - taking those words and providing his or her own images. The reader engages as he or she chooses; there are times then this books is gruesome - a reader is free to put the book down, take a rest from the misery, go outside and smell the roses, listen to the birdsong.
When I saw this televised, the director seemed to understand this need for respite from the trenches: the flashback scenes, while painful to watch in places, were full of sunshine and - in spite of the heartache - there was an optimism in all that loving. It left the viewer with a feeling that the carnage was worth it for love, in the form of a child, would survive. And, if it was too full of blood and mayhem, the viewer could turn it off - or go and make a cup of tea and hope it was more cheerful when he or she came back.
There is no such respite on stage. This production handled the flashbacks seamlessly, so 'present' morphed into memory with little more than a flicking of scenery and change of lighting. Characters slipped from past to present with comparable ease. However, the backdrop - the barbed wire and mud of the trenches - never moved. The audience was never able to forget the context of this play, no taking a trip to the loo, no slipping into the garden to remind yourself of sunshine.
The result - it was harrowing. It's hugely powerful - and important to remember just how futile it all was, how pointless all that carnage. The acting and staging was superb. But not for anyone who, for whatever reason, is looking for light entertainment. - I don't see this as 'criticism' - this is a magnificent, important play and this production was wonderful. Harrowing was what it needed to be.