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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism