Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Play vs TV vs Book

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.


  1. Interesting comparisons, Jo. I've only read the book (a while back) and recall quite a bit of it, which doesn't always happen. The subject Is so unspeakably sad, such a black period in our history. Glad you found the play appropriately managed

  2. Wow, what an accolade, Jo. I haven't read the book or seen the TV production, so I don't know it at all, but I never cease to be moved by the awful, awful futility of all wars, but that first World War in particular. I have read many books set in the period and in the trenches and I can imagine how harrowing this play must have been.

  3. Thank you both - it was a memorable evening, and raised more questions than it answered - about the war, and about the transition from book to film to stage. (So much thinking ... I need cake!)

  4. One of the most important things I take away from this post is that this must be a WONDERFUL book. For you to read the book, and then see the TV and play adaptations says a lot for it. Most of the time, I've been very disappointed by adaptations of books I love. The visual interpretations never quite stack up to what I get from the printed page. However, your descriptions of the TV and stage interpretations speak well for both.

  5. We have a similar view on adaptations. I used to compare them when I was younger but nowadays I take each art form for what it is. Also, each director (whether a stage version or film adaptation) will hopefully leave their own fingerprint on the final product.

    Great post. I loved it.

    Greetings from London.

  6. Birdsong is my daughter's favourite book,she had to read it at school. Sometimes I think if one person thinks a book is great and another thinks it's terrible it could be that one has better imagination than the other. I see all my books in my head as a film when I'm reading them.