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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge