First World War story retains its power on stage

Birdsong at York Theatre Royal
Birdsong at York Theatre Royal
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One of the nation’s favourite novels is being brought to the stage. Nick Ahad talks to the man behind the show and hears the author himself is pleased with the results.

You have to wonder about the wisdom of taking a well loved book and adapting it for another medium.

You can turn a film into a musical, a play into an opera, a play into a film, but the almost insurmountable problem you have to face when you turn a book into a play, or even a film, is that no matter how much technology or theatre techniques advance you are facing a formidable opponent: the human imagination.

When we read, we create the images in our heads. Film falls short. So, you might assume, does theatre. The beauty of theatre, however, is that it doesn’t really try to compete on equal terms when it takes a story from literature. Not when its done intelligently. Instead it appeals to the audience to once again use their imaginations and go on their journey of recreating the book on stage. Shakespeare knew it – the prologue of Henry V asks the audience to cram within a wooden ‘O’ the vast fields of France – and the people behind the stage version of Birdsong know it.

“You have to be quite irreverent with the material, you can’t approach it timidly, you have to be quite bold. If you are timid, then you end up limiting yourself.”

The man who is willing to show no timidity towards the material is actor, writer, director and producer Alastair Whatley (although here he only takes on the mantle of director and producer). And the material? Birdsong.The Sebastian Faulks story, although a novel, ought for the sake of accuracy be referred to as a phenomenon.

More than 20 years since it was first published, it is considered Faulks’s best work and continues to sell in its thousands.

You might think then, that a stage version of the book has a ready-made audience, but the people behind the national tour of the play, coming to York Theatre Royal next week, have clearly had their work cut out for them.

“We actually had a quiet couple of weeks after the tour opened, but since then it has just built and built,” says Whatley. “But since we got the rights it’s been through a lot of work – I think we’ve been through about 30 drafts.

“It’s different from the book, but not unrecognisable. In London it had three acts, two intervals and there was a whole middle part that was set in the Somme. Our version ploughs straight into the war and we go into the tunnels.

“We’ve employed the device of it being a memory play and we weren’t sure if people would immediately follow, but audiences seem to really go with it.”

The reason for Whatley’s confidence in his touring version of Faulks’ story, is the trump card he holds in his hand. The author.

“Before we got the rights Sebastian needed… some persuading,” admits Whatley.

“Eventually he ended up actually appearing on stage as a tunneller in the show as a one-off during the 200th performance of the show – and the other day he sent four pages of notes.”

It’s fair to say that Faulks is on board. The stamp of approval is important because, as Whatley says, the play takes some liberties with the original.

In the stage version, in pre-war France, a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, embarks on a passionate and dangerous affair with the beautiful Isabelle Azaire that turns their worlds upside down.

As the war breaks out, Stephen must lead his men through the carnage of the Battle of the Somme and through the sprawling tunnels that lie deep underground. Faced with the unprecedented horror of the war, Stephen clings to the memory of Isabelle and the idyll of his former life as his world explodes around him.

Faulks has worked closely with the stage adaptor Rachel Wagstaff, to ensure that, despite the changes, the heart of the story remains intact.

He says: “Both Rachel and I want this to be the definitive version of Birdsong on stage. The audience watch it and think, thank God I have never undergone all of this. These experiences are far outside the lives of most people but there is something about the way the production works which makes people identify and think, it could be me...”

In the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, there are many poignant works of art that speak of the horror of the war.

Director Whatley hopes the version he is taking around the country will resonate.

“I think it shows the power of theatre. If you take something like War Horse, which deals with a similar subject, within moments the audience is watching Joey the horse.

“Even though they can see that it is a puppet and they can actually see the people inside, controlling the puppet, they believe they are watching a horse,” he says.

“With this we don’t go into the tunnels, that Sebastian describes so well in his book, we just suggest them. But how we suggest them, in a very theatrical and simple way, is the key to taking the audience there.”

When he was researching the play, Whatley found his notions of the First World War challenged. He discovered that much of his impression of the war had been most indelibly inked – as he argues it has for a whole generation – by Blackadder, of all things.

“The idea of General Melchett and the officer class represented by Stephen Fry’s character and the ordinary Tommys and the lions led by donkeys – Blackadder actually has had a significant impact on the way we think about the war.

“But it was a moment in history that has many, many interpretations.”

One thing not up for discussion, agrees Whatley, is the horror of war.

“We’ve found an incredible reaction from the audience as we’ve been touring. At the end of the show there is complete silence.

“The audience don’t make a noise. It’s the best compliment we can get and a reminder that 100 years on the power to shock of what happened has not lessened.”