Country House Shakespeare – Twelfth Night at the RST

Rather like a piano in a Victorian parlour, there seemed to be a great accretion of detail to wade through here on the way to something meaningful. Was it just heritage porn?



Dinita Gohil, left, as Viola and Kara Tointon as the besotted Olivia in the RSC’s new Twelfth Night – MANUEL HARLAN

And so to Stratford-upon-Avon, for the third time in six months, to see the last performance of the RSC’s Twelfth Night. I have very happy memories of Stratford in general, where I did an MA in Shakespeare and Theatre Studies, and in particular of the RSC’s 2014 productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, which were set either side of the First World War. It was a period setting that brought out new layers of meaning in both the plays, further enhanced by Christopher Luscombe’s sumptuous country house setting and Nigel Hess’s joyous musical pastiche of Edwardian pomp and circumstance giving way to the Jazz Age.

Quite rightly, it packed the house out for weeks and so it was natural enough that the RSC ordered more of the same for Twelfth Night, this time setting it rather arbitrarily in the 1890s and packing it with a pianola, an Indian Sebastian and Caesario, a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan numbers and rather a lot of Oscar Wilde, green carnation stuff. All this was sumptuously recreated at great expense; Olivia’s gowns alone must have set the RSC back thousands, and there was even a scene in a London railway terminal.

Twelfth Night is a broad church (although if you make it too contemporary there’s some highly questionable treatment of mental illness). It can stand a lot in the way of updating, particularly when it’s as beautifully produced and performed as this, but there was a whiff of opportunism about the amount of late Victoriana we were being subjected to here. Rather like a piano in a Victorian parlour, there seemed to be a great accretion of detail to wade through here on the way to something meaningful. Was it just heritage porn? In the setting of Stratford-upon-Avon, which is itself festooned with bunting and restaurants offering cream teas as Mad Men era music plays in the background, it did rather come over that way. I’m surprised that the normally commercially savvy National Trust hasn’t co-funded this production, since it takes a local property as a design reference (the wonderful Arts-and-Crafts house Wightwick Manor).

Stratford, at least the Shakespearian bit, is a living temple to Englishness as it is generally viewed by the rest of the world. The Chinese pound is doing a great deal to keep it in business these days, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the local Council to lay on basic Mandarin courses for hospitality and retail workers. I saw the Birthplace Gift Shop lose a substantial sale because a lady was unable to understand a request to enter her PIN number. I remember from my MA days that on the late-evening train back to Birmingham you were as likely to hear Polish spoken as you were English. I noticed a lot of businesses advertising for staff.

Post Referendum, I’m inclined to take a rather jaded view of all this chintzy Englishness. The RSC offer a varied programme, and everything they do is first-class, so it would be churlish to complain about them offering the occasional crowd-pleaser. But if I have to sit through one more production featuring a pert scullery maid bobbing to her betters in a mob cap, I’ll start missing Maggie Smith. Christopher Eccleston is up next as Macbeth. Given his forthright views on social class when pressed on the reasons why he quit Doctor Who, I can’t help wondering what he made of Twelfth Night. There are some terrific Shakespearian insults in it.

All’s Well?


Image: Ellora Torchia (Helena) and Will Merrick (Bertram) in All’s Well That Ends Well, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, 2018

All’s Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare’s tricky mid-career plays, is performed less frequently than the crowd-pleasing As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. Despite its upbeat title and just-about-happy ending, it’s one of the Bard’s most cynical takes on romantic relationships.

I saw it last week in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s recreated Jacobean indoor theatre. It’s tiny, you feel you’re almost sitting on the stage, and completely candlelit. Here, language is forced to do the heavy lifting. It’s hard to be naturalistic when you’re carrying around a candelabra to light your own face. Elaborate 17th Century costumes add a further layer of formality. Watching a performance in these surrounding is making a journey into the past – if done well, it unlocks some remarkable new insights into Shakespeare’s craft.

The play takes place, nominally at least, at the court of France, which is at war with Florence and filled with young bloods eager to prove themselves on the battlefield. Shakespeare does not hold back in his lampooning of male bravado, particularly through the ridiculous braggart Parolles, who is a comic creation almost the equal of Falstaff.

There are certainly strong women in All’s Well. But for feminists, there’s a problem. What on earth does Helena see in Bertram, surely one of Shakespeare’s least likeable leads? Unlike Hero in Much Ado, who’s basically set up by the patriarchy to wed the nasty Claudio, Helena has as much agency, wit and cunning as Rosalind. Is she just interested in upward social mobility? There’s clear evidence in the text that she’s besotted by Bertram, who treats her appallingly. And she goes to extreme lengths to get him back. This is no Mariana moping in her moated grange. This woman goes on a dangerous pilgrimage into a war zone and schemes with the locals to claim her conjugal rights.

A candlelit space is by its very nature intimate. It’s very likely that these very constraints, plus the opportunity to create sophisticated special effects, led to the spectacular other-worldly quality of the late romances. I’ve seen two of these, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, at the Wanamaker, and in both cases the indoor world was powerfully evoked. Imagining the contrasting outdoor one was more of a stretch. Probably the Jacobean audience were more accepting of the limitations of the venue. Naturalistic acting wasn’t a familiar concept – they went to the theatre to be wowed by poety pyrotechnics. In those days, hearing a good sermon was a day out.

This production seemed to approach the challenge of All’s Well by classing it as an early draft of these late plays, and staging it accordingly. There is much use of ritual and incantation, and a twist at the end that pushes the envelope of familiar Shakespearian improbability into something resembling magical realism. The shadowy theatre becomes a womb-like space, not simply because Helena ultimately gives birth but through repeated use of bathing, candlelight and deeply feminine ritual. It is no coincidence that the dominant colour of the women’s costumes changes to a bright red as the play draws to its close.


Michelle Terry as Helena and Oliver Ford Davies as the King in the 2009 National Theatre production

Michelle Terry’s Helena at the National a few years ago was more clearly a traditional fairy-tale heroine, with her basket and red cloak. And the Tobacco Factory production I saw last year at the Lowry really revelled in the broad comedy of the Parolles plot, providing another manifestation of toxic masculinity that enriched the main story line. In the Wanamaker production, Imogen Doel makes a fine job of playing Parolles, bringing out the pathos of his humiliation, but I wasn’t sure that making him effeminate was the right approach, at least all the way through. Parolles isn’t a drag queen relishing his gender fluidity. He desperately wants to be one of the boys. A bit more swagger in the early acts would have made his exposure later on more interesting.

In the final scene, Bertram apparently is moved to accept Helena as his mate by the sight of their child. Is this a happy ending? Shakespeare leaves that to the audience, or perhaps the director. Is it enough that Helena decides what she wants, and grabs it, and succeeds against all the odds? Would the fact that she makes a marriage into the nobility be considered as a happy ending by a Jacobean audience? If there was any clear takeaway from this production, it was that we’ve left ordinary life behind by now and we’re operating on an archetypal level, with Helena as the Goddess in control, empowered through childbearing. We, and Bertram, can only look and marvel. As Paulina says at the end of The Winter’s Tale, “It is required you do awake your faith.”

Review of this production, The Stage



The Branding of Nadiya Hussain


Nadiya Hussain’s first novel has just been published – is there no end to this lady’s talents? She has already proved her worth on the Great British Bake Off, released a lovely kids’ cook book and proved to be a charming and natural TV travel show host. And of course, she is justly valued as an icon of everything that inclusive, multicultural Britain should be.

She’s a delightful person and a worthy Bake Off winner. I wish her all the best; so, I am sure, does Jenny Colgan. But I do share Colgan’s reservations about Nadia’s overexposure. It’s not just Nadiya of course; it’s almost a rite of passage for people who became famous on TV for some completely different reason to produce a work of fiction – at the very least, a children’s picture book. A lot of comedians do it and in the case of the popular David Walliams, to give one example, they turn out to be pretty good. This is hardly surprising since humour is a much-loved attribute of many children’s books.

In fairness to Nadia, she’s probably in the hands of an agent by now and has only limited choice over what opportunities she doesn’t take up. And she acknowledges that she didn’t write her novel on her own. I don’t think Jenny Colgan’s showing any jealousy or sour grapes here. But she’s identifying a somewhat depressing feature of modern cultural life, one that I see daily in my work with children’s books.

Children’s fiction has always featured long, much-loved and formulaic series. But at least Enid Blyton wrote her own books. She wasn’t part of a syndicate dreamed up by marketing moguls, subsumed into a generic Daisy Meadows or Adam Blade. The marketing of Nadiya shows that branding is everything in publishing these days. The best way to get a book published is not necessarily (some would say never) to be a good writer, but to be famous for something else already. What does that actually say to children about how much we value good writing? That it’s something you get to do after you’ve done the important stuff, the stuff like being in the Big Brother house or on The Apprentice? That once you’ve been famous for fifteen minutes you have a right to be heard and to be taken seriously? Where does that leave Jenny Colgan’s child, “in a chilly corner of your library, if you are still lucky enough to have one….by themselves, bespectacled probably; not wearing the trendiest clothes. And they are reading and reading and filling their head with nothing else but books and words and new worlds.”

Of course, publishers would argue that they have to make money and that’s what people want. But people tend to want what they have been told that they want, by multinational corporations with agendas of their own. And any corporation has a tendency to rub the messy edges off those creative people that come into its clutches. I think books have become so brand-saturated because as a society we have stopped valuing the gatekeepers, the teachers and librarians, the arbiters of taste. In a spirit of misplaced anti-elitism we have convinced ourselves that such people have no right to impose their cultural standards on us. Voters have consistently supported governments that have presided over the running down of libraries and the stifling of creativity in schools. The result is that many people are deeply uncomfortable around books, so much so that they need the presence of a comforting character to make the experience palatable to them.

I see this in the school library all the time. At one time I was dismayed by the number of shoddily written, cheap Disney picture books that some children craved. I also confess to a deep aesthetic aversion to Peppa Pig. But my prejudices have mellowed somewhat as I’ve interacted more with children who have not grown up with a lot of books around them. For a small child, a book works best in close proximity to an adult, someone offering them undivided attention and a feeling of security and acceptance. For many children – and not necessarily poor ones – that role is now filled by the iPad or the TV. No wonder that the presence of a Disney character reassures them. And if they are lucky enough to have people in their lives who will build on that by buying them books, those adults are increasingly tempted to play safe by buying the 90th title in an interminably formulaic series that they know the recipient will like.

When I was a regular churchgoer, I became familiar with the pronouncement that God loves us enough to take us as we are, but not to leave us as we are. It does us good to be gently, persistently and lovingly pushed out of our comfort zone. Or would our political masters prefer us to stay there, marooned in our bunkers and transfixed by our screens? The best way to do that is to run down libraries, until you end up with people who won’t contemplate reading anything that doesn’t have a person from the telly on the front of it. So far, it seems to be working.

Nadiya’s lovely and genuinely talented. Perhaps a little brand-stretching is a price worth paying for her value as a positive role model in this increasingly divided society. But to misquote Arthur Miller, I congratulate her with a sense of alarm.


All that Glisters Is Not Gold – The Merchant of Venice at the Globe

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock

Back from London, where on Sunday I went straight from an intense political discussion with my son in the BFI canteen to a production of “Merchant of Venice” at the Globe. I have blogged about the Merchant before, after seeing the striking but ideologically muddled RSC production of 2011. And indeed, one problem with directing Merchant is that it’s more than simply a Jewish play. There are so many facets to the dysfunctional Venice Shakespeare depicts that it’s a challenging decision for any director to decide which ones to go with. The RSC production ended up highlighting the sexism, its Portia a dumbed-down Barbie doll, and the veniality, transforming Venice into Vegas with an Elvis soundtrack and slot machines.

The Globe has taken a different tack, very much foregrounding the anti-Semitism. Shylock is given dignity by a deeper portrayal of his culture than is generally afforded. Played by the real-life father and daughter team of Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce, this Shylock and Jessica communicate in Hebrew and we see Jessica’s initially modest dress evolve as she slots uneasily into louche Venetian society. In the scene where Antonio sets up the fateful bond, he snatches Shylock’s prayer book from him and throws it to the ground, a gesture rendered even more powerful when Shylock kisses the scriptures upon retrieving them. This is not a Shylock who blends in, and his apparently unreasonable demand for justice becomes a cry for the recognition and validation of his identity.

There are a number of such brutal incidents in this production. When Jessica is transported to Belmont, Portia’s body language and casual flirtation with Lorenzo makes it clear that she will never be fully accepted. We see instances of casual and vicious anti-Semitism, and they are all the more effective for being downplayed, showing a prejudice so integrated into Venetian culture that it deemed entirely unremarkable. Portia herself is marginalised and denied agency, and barely recognises the myriad subtle ways that she inflicts the pain this causes her on more vulnerable outsiders; even the casket scene with the Prince of Morocco, generally played entirely for laughs, acquires an edge here when we contrast her eye-rolling contempt for this Muslim wannabe with her barely-veiled hints to the more favoured Bassanio.

But these undercurrants are, rightly I feel, kept bubbling under the surface. The final scene, described by Shakespeare but realised here, is the forced conversion and baptism of Shylock. It’s almost unbearable to witness. While Jessica keens in the background, knowing that she has sold herself to a world that will never completely accept her, we see a proud and dignified man completely broken by a corrupt society that willingly exploits him even as it despises and condemns his faith.

What I took away from this intelligent rendering of a painful play was that prejudice of any kind corrupts and distorts an entire society, cheapening the relations between men and women, servants and masters, rich and poor alike. Here was a corruption barely noticed, so pervasively toxic it had become. Both Shakespeare’s Venetian plays (the other one being, of course, Othello) focus on outsiders whose qualities are exploited by a social order that despises and abuses them, and it shows that living with such prejudice coarsens the victims as they unconsciously transfer the insults they themselves suffer onto their domestic and social victims.

The best programme notes add subtlety and contemporary resonance to our reading of the play. The Globe programme points out that Venice in the early modern period was already a society in deep decline, defeated by the Ottoman empire, scarred by plague and all but finished as a significant trading power. Yet the Council of Ten continued to strut and swagger, to defy Papal edict, persecute their minorities and reserve a particularly sharp disdain for those outsiders whose talents helped them to negotiate the new world order.

The parallels with contemporary England have real resonance at this point in our national history. One wonders how many of the tourists thronging outside the Globe, drawn to London by our long-standing reputation for decency and democracy, will eventually discover the emptiness of that particular casket as we seek to jettison our commitment to the Declaration of Human Rights and cling to an outdated concept of past glories.

Tennant as Richard II – what did I think?

DT RichardRichard II.

Richard II is not one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays. It’s long, it’s entirely in verse (much of it rhyming couplets, making it difficult to conduct a realistic conversation), the historical background is alien to us and we are plunged right into a dispute that can seem pretty baffling to the uninitiated. Additionally, the protagonist is deeply unlikeable. There is also an almost complete lack of light relief. For these reasons, and no doubt many more, it is rarely performed.

But if you’re going to understand the Histories, it’s essential, because the whole cycle turns on the issue of whether the sacreligious act of deposing an anointed ruler can ever be justified – a question of vital importance to Shakespeare’s audience as the ageing Elizabeth became increasingly paranoid. She was under no illusions. “Know ye not I am Richard II?” she quipped darkly, threatened by the rebellion of Essex and other restless favourites.

So Richard is a very public and political story, and last year’s BBC production with Ben Whishaw in the title role put that across poetically and winningly. His Richard was almost too beautiful to live – a foolish boy-king in his golden pavilion toying with his pet monkey and fondling his flatterers. And when I heard that Tennant was going to take on the role, I wondered if he was already a bit too old. His face seems to have lost some of its youthful smoothness over the last few years, become pinched and a bit gaunt in certain, unflattering lights, though he can still scrub up well when he wants to. But wasn’t he a bit mature for the bratty Richard, I wondered?

Well, I needn’t have worried. Being Tennant, directed by Doran who understands him and knows him inside out, he turned that to his advantage. Clad head to toe in shimmering raiment, nails laquered to match, sporting hair extensions almost to his waist, he gives off the aura of an ageing, slightly dissolute rock star with his best hits behind him. He plays a monarch utterly trapped in his divinely appointed role, who has known nothing else since childhood (the real Richard II was crowned at the age of 10), deeply and desperately unfulfilled, capricious and gripped by the ennui that comes from having everything, yet nothing. Even more remarkably, he conveys a sense that his downfall, though merited politically since he behaves atrociously, exchanges an age of refinement and culture for something less imaginative, more pragmatic and brutal. This production harbours no illusions about medieval chivalry. It is a form of words that plasters crude bullying and jockying for position with a veneer of refinement, and results in as much grief and slaughter as any capricious royal commands. Tennant’s Richard calls off Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s dual at the eleventh hour because, above all, he finds it boring and distasteful.

It had not occurred to me until I saw this production that Richard II is a personal tragedy as well as a public one. It’s personal because Richard doesn’t know who he is. Or rather, he always assumed that “the King” was the only conceivable answer. When that goes, there’s nothing left, and it takes an actor of Tennant’s sensitivity and chilling calibre to let the ghastly fear show in his eyes as, one by one, his certainties are stripped away. He’s never been regarded as a human being, so he’s never learned how to be one (there are obvious parallels with the Doctor here, though his performance never goes near them in any overt way). A particularly touching scene is when the young Aumerle, who is obviously in love with Richard, breaks down in his presence and the ex-King awkwardly takes him in his arms, struggling to locate something close to a genuine emotional response.

In its later stages, Richard’s journey becomes a philosophical quest. Rotting in prison, his layers of royal costume literally stripped from him, chained in a filthy shift, he ponders is fate, trying and failing to make sense of it all:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.

Richard’s first steps to self-awareness are snuffed out by his murderers, but in his lines we hear something like an early draft of Hamlet’s interiority.

It would be quite wrong to give all the credit to Tennant for this production, as he would be the first to admit. Another of its unexpected strengths is that the older nobles on the sidelines of the action are fleshed out and made fully human. Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt takes the famous “England” speech and restores its anguish; it is not triumphalism but a lament for a loved native land despoiled by foolish misgovernment. And those who saw Doran’s 2008 Hamlet will recall how ably Tennant was supported by the superb Oliver Ford Davies as Polonious. Here he returns as the King’s ageing uncle York and shows us an old man worn out by the loss of his brothers to internicine fighting, unable to bear the load the inadequate King Richard puts on his shoulders as regent at a time of political turbulence, yet torn apart by inner conflict as he comes to realise that the unthinkable must be done to preserve any semblance of order. In York we have an eloquent defence of the sanctity of kingship, and the lacerating pain of seeing it fail. It’s a stupendous achievement, and a great pleasure to see the dynamic between Davies and Tennant again.

Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II
Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II

In short, this production more than delivers. If you are a Tennant fan, you’ll find plenty to absorb you here, but hopefully you will see beyond the charisma to a difficult play done well. You’ll be lucky to get a ticket but do catch the movie showing if you possibly can.


Tennant returns to Stratford – and more good news

tennantR2I’m obviously backsliding as a Tennant fan, because the much-rumoured news that he was to play Richard II for the RSC came as a complete surprise to me. After some frankly forgettable movies, it’s the right part for the right man at the right time. If he left it much longer I think he’d find it harder to convey Richard’s physical and mental fragility, although anyone who remembers the Tenth Doctor’s meltdown in The Waters of Mars won’t have many concerns on the latter.
In fact, this announcement is the jewel in the very enticing crown of Doran’s overall vision for the RSC. There’s a real feel of going back to basics, with his commitment to stage the entire canon without repetition over the next five years. I’m pleased that he’s resisting the pull of the GCSE and A-Level set books and backpeddling the ensemble strategy a bit. Celebrity casting has its pitfalls but great actors are great for a reason – they are supremely good at their job. And great actors and celebrities aren’t necessarily synonymous, though in the case of Tennant’s Hamlet the two did coincide. Hopefully the hysteria will be more muted now he’s no longer whizzing about in the TARDIS, which will make the daunting prospect of booking and security management a little easier for the RSC and, presumably, the whole experience less stressful for him.

Also welcome is that Doran has a clear plan for the beautiful Swan theatre. Written on the Heart, a couple of years ago, did show its potential as a more intimate space to reflect on the complexities of the early modern era and its dramatic output. The Hilary Mantel adaptation is a terrific coup and might even generate more buzz than the comparatively little-known and demanding Richard II.

The revival of TOP is further good news for the Stratford economy. Local businesses have had a tough time in recent years, with the main house dark for so long and the future of The Courtyard unresolved. Keeping shops and guest houses open may not be at the top of Doran’s agenda, but the RSC is a big enough local employer to take some responsibility for the community, so this is good news on both aesthetic and economic grounds.

I’m looking forward to many more wonderful theatrical experiences in Stratford over the years to come. For this relief, much thanks, Mr D!

Can a war movie be too beautiful? Thoughts on “Birdsong” and “Coriolanus”

Coriolanus, the Movie

My weekend (artistically at least) was dominated by stories of war. It began with the new Coriolanus movie on Friday, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes. Coriolanus is one of the great, sprawling tragedies of Shakespeare’s later career. One could almost call it cinematic. There are a lot of short, punchy scenes that flow into each other, conveying information and moving along a complicated plot. In that respect it resembles Anthony and Cleopatra, but is far less romantic. It is, at heart, the story of a man who becomes a war hero in a society where, it is generally assumed, that fits him for high political office. But to succeed as a consul he needs to court the favour of the people, something that due to his proud and austere temperament he is quite unable to do. The play can be opened out further in many different ways, and among these it is an examination of how difficult it is for a society based on warfare and the breeding of warriors to be anything other than dysfunctional. The personal tragedy of Coriolanus himself, a man who only really feels completely alive when he is locked in combat, mirrors this.

Coriolanus also contains one of Shakespeare’s greatest portraits of a mature woman, in the person of the hero’s formidable mother, Volumnia. Volumnia lives vicariously through her only child, all her energy channelled into pride in his military achievements. Her story is a fascinating deconstruction of the accepted ideal of the powerful Roman matron. I wonder, sometimes, if this was a story that had been in Shakespeare’s mind long before he actually wrote it, and if one of the reasons for that was that his portrait of a strong woman whose temperament had been warped by the need to succeed in a world dominated by ultra-masculine values was simply too provocative to put on stage until after Elizabeth’s reign had ended.

The intricate political plot is mirrored and contrasted with Coriolanus’s emotional journey. Locked in a dysfunctional relationship with both his mother and his homeland, he eventually finds intimacy and release in the arms (literally) of his sworn enemy, Aufidius. He defects to the other side after being banished from Rome, a situation brought on by his political ineptitude and inability to conceal his contempt for common humanity. The scene where he offers Aufidius his service, and by implication his love, is one of the most homoerotically charged that Shakespeare ever wrote.

When Coriolanus leads an assault on Rome his desire for revenge is sated but he finds himself caught in an impossible conflict of loyalties when his mother, wife and son come and plead with him to spare his native state. Eventually he capitulates, an act which destroys him and offers Volumnia an empty victory.

It is a story that can be updated easily; the main dilemma faced by a modern film-maker is how to make the hero’s political rise and fall credible without getting bogged down in the lengthy political scenes. Fiennes locates the action in a state called Rome, but actually resembling a Balkan battlefield of civil war. News bulletins and horse-trading in smoke-filled rooms move along the political plot and battle scenes are shot on grainy film with hand-held cameras. The result is a powerful portrait of the violence, mess and sheer destruction war inflicts on communities. I’ve seen bloodier war scenes in movies, but none bleaker. There are some astounding performances, particularly from Fiennes himself and from Vanessa Redgrave as a Volumnia cauterised of any emotion, measuring her love for her son by her pride in the number of scars he bears on his body.

Eddie Redmayne in Birdsong - can a World War One movie be too beautiful?

Watching Birdsong on Sunday was a great contrast, though its subject matter was also the way that warfare destroys the human spirit. I haven’t read Sebastian Faulks’ novel, which is very highly thought of, and perhaps because of this I found the characters somewhat flat and opaque. I wonder if it is possible for an adaptation to be too reverent? Birdsong proceeds at a glacial pace, all big close ups and emotional beats stretched out to breaking point. The odd thing was how little any of it engaged me emotionally, even when a bloke’s stomach was ripped open by a shell and he died in agony. I found Stephen impossible to like, or even to relate to, not only in the war scenes but in the earlier ones depicting the passionate affair that haunts him for the rest of his life (though the sex was undoubtedly hot and beautifully photographed).

There is definitely a set of aesthetic values associated with British period drama and I know Birdsong has already been highly praised. I found it tedious and felt a little guilty about my reaction. It is possible even for meticulously recreated shots of the Western Front to look too perfect, and too mired in cinematic cliche, and this effect is magnified when the characters don’t engage us. Ironic, since Birdsong is credited by many as having pioneered a new, realistic depiction of the First World War in fiction. It may be one of those dramas you can’t really appreciate without some knowledge of the original.

It’s not that the First World War in fiction fails to move me. Far from it. I’ve been powerfully affected by Owen and Sassoon’s poetry, and Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, in the latter case so much that I doubt if I could bear to watch the TV adaptation again. But that is because I was inside Vera’s head and heart – I know what she had lost, I understood her howl of despair and frustration when her selfish parents kept pestering her to come back from her work as a war nurse and keep house for them. I was so angry on her behalf, I could hardly bear it. And the punch-in-the-gut realisation, in the last scene of Blackadder Goes Forth, that all these rather daft and very real men were going over the top to their deaths has also remained with me:

It is also possible to convey both the pity and the horror in the simplest of language, accessible even to children, and this short, simple passage from War Horse says more, to me, than hours of the Flanders-porn of Birdsong:

Someone remembered it was Christmas morning, and they sang slow, tuneful carols all the way back. For the most part they were casualties blinded by gas and in their pain some of them cried, as they sang, for their lost sight. We made so many journeys that day and stopped only when the hospital could take no more.

It was already a starry night by the time we reached the farm. The shelling had stopped. There were no flares to light up the sky and blot out the stars. All the way along the lane not a gun fired. Peace had come for one night, one at least. The snow in the yard was crisped by the frost.


So simple. So incredibly moving. I’ve yet to see what Spielberg does with it, but that’s a tough act to follow.