It takes some doing, but Trevor Nunn has managed it: He’s taken Sebastian Faulks’ passionate bestselling British novel about love and sacrifice in WWI and made it unaffecting and torpid. In the final two hours of “Birdsong,” there are moments of sincere albeit predictable rage about the horror of the human slaughter, but the leaden production only truly reminds audiences that the oft-revived “Oh What a Lovely War” did all this and more far better, and that most novels are best read.
Despite having wisely removed the novel’s modern-day framing device, adaptor Rachel Wagstaff (making her West End debut) is still left with a broad time period and a host of characters that resist theatrical shaping. Cleaving to the episodic nature of the novel, Wagstaff turns what feels like the bulk of the 500-page tome into little more than dutiful first-person narration. As Stephen — who goes to France in 1910, falls recklessly in love with his landlord’s wife, Isabelle (Genevieve O’Reilly), and then suffers through the war — Ben Barnes spends an unaccountable amount of stage time delivering woefully undramatic audience address.
The effect of this approach is exemplified by the supposed emotional climax of the first act. Having run away with Isabelle, Stephen announces that he has returned to their hideaway to discover that she is “Gone. Gone.” He then turns sideways and cries aloud “Isabelle … Isabelle … ” before turning back and continuing the narration.
“Birdsong” is heavy on episodic plot, something theater is rarely suited for, and with so much to get through, too many scenes wind up expository and schematic. In most cases, that means good actors are reduced to displaying a single defining characteristic: Zoe Waites as older sister Jeanne is understanding; Nicholas Farrell’s gruff Capt. Gray smokes a pipe to indicate thoughtfulness.
The shift into the war itself does at least allow the production team to go to town on atmosphere, especially via Fergus O’Hare’s sound design, which fills in the script’s holes by supplying everything from explosions to the titular birdsong.
Locations are suggested by sepia-toned projections at the back of John Napier’s set that blossom into color for the actual scenes. That literal approach is (over)emphasized in the trench sequences, which use physical setpieces in an attempt to conjure the claustrophobia of underground tunnels. Yet the more the production struggles toward dogged realism, the less theatrically imaginative and convincing it becomes.
Stephen and Isabelle’s impossible love is the driving force of the novel, but Nunn appears at a loss when attempting to give that physical expression, especially given the lack of chemistry between long-suffering Barnes and O’Reilly. Barnes remains upstanding even when sitting down, and his anti-war rants appear more petulant than powerful. The standout performance is from Lee Ross, who grabs the script’s rare instances of subtext and brings out the dignity of Jack, Stephen’s wartime companion.
Stage successes have been wrought from the least likely of novels, including Nunn’s celebrated “Nicholas Nickleby.” But where that was brought to life by theatrical energy and surprise, this is smothered by its earnest sincerity.