Faulks’ Birdsong brought to the stage

Birdsong on the stage

Birdsong on the stage - Credit: Archant

The acclaimed World War 1 novel Birdsong has been adapted for the stage, and The Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham will be performing it this February. Al Senter spoke to playwright Rachel Wagstaff and Birdsong’s author Sebastian Faulks about the process of shifting a story from the page to the stage.

Sebastian Faulks' acclaimed novel follows the life of character Stephen Wraysford before and during

Sebastian Faulks' acclaimed novel follows the life of character Stephen Wraysford before and during World War 1 - Credit: Archant

According to one leading contemporary dramatist, plays are not written - they are re-written. This would appear to be the case for Birdsong, the play which Rachel Wagstaff has fashioned from the best-selling novel by Sebastian Faulks. In a year in which there will be an extensive programme of events to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, Birdsong is taking to the road once again in what will be the fourth version of the play. It has been a lengthy but rewarding process, Wagstaff recalls, a process which began nearly eight years ago.

The 2013 Tour Company performing Birdsong / Photo: Jack Ladenburg

The 2013 Tour Company performing Birdsong / Photo: Jack Ladenburg - Credit: Archant

“It was back in 2006 when I first approached Sebastian for permission to write a stage version of Birdsong. I wrote a first draft and then sent it to him and after some discussion, he gave me the nod. It had struck me when I’d first read the book how well it could take to the theatre – how vividly the tunnelling scenes and the intensity of the relationships could be portrayed. I realised that it would be difficult to pull off but felt that if we could find a way of doing it, it would be powerful.”

Birdsong live production

Birdsong live production - Credit: Archant

Wagstaff has always been fascinated by the First World War.

Sebastian Faulks CBE is a British novelist, best known for writing Birdsong, The Girl at the Lion d'

Sebastian Faulks CBE is a British novelist, best known for writing Birdsong, The Girl at the Lion d'Or and Charlotte Gray / Photo: Random House - Credit: Archant

“Like Sebastian, I first came across the subject at school,” she says. “I learnt the facts about it in History and then studied the poetry in English class. What amazed me was the scale of the suffering and the futility of it all. When I read Birdsong, it made me understand what it was like to be an individual in these circumstances. The story of the First World War is a story we must never forget.”

What was Faulks’ reaction to Wagstaff’s initial approach?

“It was puzzlement, I’d say,” he replies. “I wondered why you’d want to turn one thing which had proved to be perfectly satisfactory as a novel into something else. I was puzzled and I was also sceptical. Birdsong is quite a novelistic novel: it draws upon all the techniques of fiction. But Rachel argued her case very persuasively because she could see where it could be made to work. So I said OK. When I had a look at the first draft, I saw that Rachel had understood the book and I felt that there was potential in what she’d done. The difficulty was that I’m a bit all or nothing. Being a novelist, you are the god of the world you have created. You are in complete control, down to the smallest freckle on the nose of one of your characters. I talked to Rachel about the themes and ideas and the history behind the book. I also made occasional one word suggestions but all the rest of it, the middle ground as it were, and especially the dramatic construction, I left to Rachel.”

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Birdsong went through various stages of development, including a workshop and a reading at the Old Vic in which Stephen, the hero of the story, was played by Tom Hiddleston. A number of West End producers, led by CMP, teamed up to present the play at the Comedy Theatre, directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, where it opened in good health but at considerable length.

“The First Preview lasted four hours!” Wagstaff laments. “But don’t worry. I revised the script for the touring production and it’s only about half the length now! I’ve also reworked the structure. In the West End production, the story was told in chronological order: now it moves backwards and forwards in time and space. I was much happier with the touring production, and it was far better received. The new version seems to flow much more smoothly, with memories conjured as and when Stephen, the central character, is haunted by his past.”

Faulks’ work has made it to the screen with Cate Blanchett as the eponymous heroine Charlotte Gray and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen in a powerful television version of Birdsong for the BBC. However, for a variety of reasons, Faulks has decided to take much more personal control of his literary properties. Having initially followed the advice of others that he should shake hands on the deal and then walk away from the resultant production, he is now working with Rachel Wagstaff on dramatising On Green Dolphin Street for the BBC and on a film version of The Girl at Lion d’Or. Had he found it easy, as a ‘god figure’, to hand over a measure of his authority to his collaborator?

“It’s a case of Good Cop, Bad Cop. Rachel is very obliging and hard-working and I’m the opposite,” Sebastian chuckles. “It’s exceedingly helpful that Rachel’s strengths flow from her background in the theatre. It means that she understands the mechanics of what you can do and what you cannot do.”

“And I love working with Sebastian,” adds Wagstaff. “He’s generous, gracious, witty and open to my thoughts and suggestions.”

“I know all these people inside out – the people who inhabit my novels. In a sense, I’m both uncritical of my work and hypercritical of what others have done to it,” argues Faulks. “In the case of Birdsong, I think that the book and the play remain very different and the further the play has gone verbally from the book, the more effective it has become. Some of the West End reviews have said that the play was too reliant on phrases and sentences from the book and the play has to exist on its own terms. I think they had a point and it does now.”

It is now twenty years since Birdsong was published – to be met by an avalanche of glowing reviews and sales of more than three million copies, which suggests that the novel - and by extension the play – affects both readers and audiences at the deepest level.

“There’s no doubt that it struck a chord,” says Faulks. “But it was a lot to do with the timing. I sensed that this was the moment to do it twenty years ago. I felt at the time that I was really too young but that I also had the necessary youthful bravura to pull it off. I could easily have fallen flat on my face and perhaps ten years later, I wouldn’t even have taken it on. But at that time the last survivors of the First World War were still with us. So I was able to meet them and talk to them and, in a sense, to get their blessing - to have the book validated, in some way.”

This revival of Birdsong will be one of the many events taking place in 2014 to mark the centenary of what’s been dubbed “the war to end all wars”. A hundred years on, it still casts a long shadow upon us and Faulks argues that the anniversary may lead to a re-assessment of its significance.

“Over the next four years, we will revisit the First World War and rethink it,” he says. “The big thing about these four years is how it changed our view of the nature of who we are. I’d argue that the subsequent turmoil of the twentieth century prevented us from digesting the implications of what the Great War signified and perhaps now we have a chance to do that.”

Wagstaff too is clearly passionate about the importance of remembering, and honouring those who fought. “I think that’s why I wanted to turn this profound and much-loved novel into a play. There’s something about watching living, breathing human beings struggling and loving, playing live music and telling jokes, in front of you. Yes, it’s a fictional story we are bringing to life, but it represents so many men and boys who gave their lives for us.” Wagstaff is thrilled that the play is touring again in this centenary year. “And it’s a beautiful production. Alastair Whatley is a very telented and imaginative director, and I think the team have assembled a great cast and crew.”

Faulks’ indirect foray into the theatre may owe something to his grandmother, a repertory actress whom he never met. His mother, Pamela, regularly took Sebastian and his brother Edward to plays and Sebastian recalls seeing Laurence Olivier in a celebrated performance as Othello at London’s Old Vic Theatre. He also took part in school productions.

“The theatre was a big part of my growing up, although I was a pretty poor actor myself,” he confesses.

One of the parts Faulks played was Pastor Manders, the self-righteous clergyman in Ibsen’s Ghosts, and he returned briefly to the stage in Brighton last year, to celebrate the 200th show of the touring production of Birdsong.

“I had six lines, playing a sapper called Cartwright,” he reports proudly. “But I managed to forget one of them.” Sebastian received an award from the cast for “best cameo”, and clearly now has the bug. He promises another mystery appearance in this year’s tour, so watch out for a tall, best-selling novelist coming to a theatre near you.

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The Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham will be performing Birdsong in February 2014, from Monday 17 - Saturday 22

For information and booking, visit: www.everymantheatre.org.uk/m-shows/birdsong