Sex-free zone

The stage adaptation of <em>Birdsong</em> is just too chaste.

As Noël Coward might have gone on to say: don't put your novel on the stage, Mr Faulks. It's usually a popular, but pointless, exercise to gripe about how much better the book is than the film/play/TV series. But in the case of the stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre in London, which well-nigh impales itself on the original, comparisons provide the key to the performance's ultimate failure.

Faulks's 1993 novel has been read by five million people. Its slow-burning, lyrical prose tells the story of a young Edwardian, Stephen Wraysford, as he falls passionately in love with Isabelle, an unhappily married Frenchwoman, in Amiens. When their affair ends, the narrative switches to the vividly imagined horror of the battlefields of the Somme.

Ben Barnes plays Stephen in the play, and Genevieve O'Reilly his deserting paramour. Barnes brings a lanky grace to his role, but there is little sign of the passion that animates and drives Stephen's erotic pursuit. While some might find the book's Sleeping Beauty mythology problematic -- inert womanhood in need of a right royal seeing-to (I've always suspected that what Isabelle really needed was to take up an enriching hobby) -- one can at least concede that all the energetic sex in the first hundred or so pages is a thematic counterpoint to its perversion in the war chapters. The life-affirming, life-creating biology of it all is important in understanding the equally intimate details of the spilling of blood and organs on the battlefield.

But, as directed by Trevor Nunn, the lovers inhabit a starchy, sex-free zone. The fragile, porcelain O'Reilly appears quite glacially disposed towards the callow hero. There is repeated mention of heat and blood, but saying it's hot doesn't make it so. Stephen's code word for Isabelle is "pulse", but frankly we're not sure if she actually has one.

The performers are not helped in this by the compression of Rachel Wagstaff's over-slavish adaptation. We are left with a show that is too long, but equally moves too fast in an effort to glue everything in. So characters divulge innermost details on first acquaintance, with the clumsiest of prefaces: "You are a stranger so I can tell you the truth!" Sometimes the sheer speed of events leads to accidental comedy. When the gendarmes rush in and out it looks like the Keystone Kops have popped in. The book dictates that Stephen and Isabelle have a scene in the rose garden, so a trellis is duly cranked in for a 30-second appearance.

We're on marginally better territory in the episodes relating to war, thanks in part to charismatic performances from Lee Ross as honest Jack Firebrace, the sapper with a jaunty music-hall alter ego, and Nicholas Farrell as the shrewd maverick Colonel Gray. As sound designer, Fergus O'Hare in particular is able to create moments of great power: Amiens is literally blasted away. The literalism dies hard, however, and the tunnels are painstakingly and painfully represented when a flicker of light in the darkness might have sufficed. Sometimes a big budget is no good thing: it's as if Nunn and his team have lost faith in theatre's power of suggestion.

Barnes is burdened with the dual task of articulating both Stephen's and the narrator's voices: Wagstaff's tactic is simply to elide the two. Our man is liable to interpret events for us, or launch into an outraged description of slaughter, say, at inopportune moments. Stephen's broken detachment is replaced with petulance. Conversely his private thoughts and imaginings are given to other characters to spell out; scenes end up tumid with exposition, and characters warped beyond recognition. At times one could sense that the cast was going through the mill emotionally, but this emotion failed to make a break for the auditorium and into the no-man's-land of confused audience responses.

Perhaps the real love affair in Birdsong is between Wagstaff and her beloved book; to quote arguably the greatest adapter of existing stories (and Wagstaff's distant namesake), it's as if she loved not wisely, but too well. It seems fitting for a show that is so reverential towards text that its most moving moment derived not from the acting or the action, but from the entr'acte projected roll-call of the dead.

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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