Bringing Birdsong to the stage

Adapting Sebastian Faulks’s novel for the stage proved a challenge but it is well-timed for the centenary of the first World War


Not long ago, in a grand room studded with military portraits in the National Army Museum in London, a man did his best to account for the first World War.

By the time the “war to end all wars” had concluded in 1918, 65 million people had been mobilised. More than 8.5 million were killed, over 21 million wounded and almost eight million taken prisoner. The numbers flashed up on a screen, coldly factual but somehow incomprehensible, while the museum’s head of learning, Tristan Langlois, summed it up not just as one of the deadliest conflicts in history, in which empires fell, but as “a war of telephone numbers”.

Among those figures, though, were countless “strange and unique stories”; faces that might emerge from all the statistics, narratives that could make an event which had finally slipped beyond living memory seem real to us again. “That’s one way through the telephone numbers.”

Sitting close by, the novelist Sebastian Faulks listened attentively, during an event to promote a new theatrical adaptation of his best-selling war story, Birdsong .

“No child or future generation will ever know what this was like,” writes its central character, Stephen Wraysford, in his diary, from the trenches of the Somme in 1916.

Since 1993, though, when Birdsong was published, Faulks has been responsible for one of the best-regarded and most popular fictions about the conflict. For many, it is their experience of the Great War: the authoritative account – graphic in both its protagonist’s doomed love affair with a French industrialist’s wife and then his numbed report of the carnage of mechanised warfare – of “what it must have been like”.

That veracity, which Faulks earned through visits to the western front (he keeps a jam-jar filled with earth from the Somme with the original manuscript) and consultation with soldiers’ letters and diaries in the Imperial War Museum, has led to book sales of over three million, inclusion on Britain’s A-Level syllabus, a television adaptation, several aborted efforts to turn it into a film and, since 2010, an unlikely theatre adaptation, now coming to Ireland.

It’s hardly coincidental that this comes during the centenary of the war’s outbreak, but it is curious to reflect that the commemoration of the first World War has itself become another kind of battleground.

At the start of the year, the UK’s education secretary Michael Gove attacked – of all things – the historical comedy series Blackadder for skewing historical perspectives of the war and fuelling the revisionist interpretations of “left-wing academics”.

Since then, struggles over the war’s meaning and inheritance have multiplied; from the symbolism of the poppy to proposals for “celebratory” street parties, a resurgence of interest in the sombre war poetry of Wilfred Owen and the dissenting voice of “the last Tommie” Harry Patch, and now international tours of entertainments such as the NT’s War Horse and The Original Theatre Company’s Birdsong , which both present the war through a distinctly British perspective. (One exception is the National Theatre’s production of Sean O’Casey’s fractured 1928 epic The Silver Tassie , about Irish soldiers.)

In the novel, Faulks’ stark prose makes Wraysford an unflinching witness to the new and inhuman phenomenon of mechanised warfare: “He recalled individual limbs, severed from their bodies, and the shape of particular wounds; he could picture the sudden intimacy of revealed internal organs, but he could not say to whom the flesh belonged.”

When Rachel Wagstaff, a graduate of Rada, approached Faulks with the idea of adapting the novel for the stage, he was sceptical. “It’s like creating an oil painting from a sculpture,” he says. “It has to live on its own right.”

The techniques of an author are necessarily different to those of a playwright, he says; where prose can deliver subjective and microscopic detail (“the tastes in their mouths, the earth under their fingernails”) theatre tends to favour a wider spectacle.

Birdsong is quite a novelistic novel,” says Faulks, a tall and gentlemanly figure. “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. 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. 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.”

It was not, they now agree, particularly successful. Wagstaff’s first approach, in a version directed by Trevor Nunn, was a chronological retread of the book, excising certain characters and sequences written from the perspective of Stephen’s granddaughter in the 1970s. It was still considered too slavishly in thrall to Faulks. It “often sounds like cut-out book pages walking around the stage”, wrote one critic.

“The further we went from the novel, the more it worked as a play,” says Wagstaff. Her new version, the fourth reworking since 2010, might owe something to the politics of remembrance in its form: it is now a memory play, beginning in the trenches where Wraysford’s past returns to haunt him in flashback.

That may not sound radical, but it does fundamentally alter the significance of Wraysford’s lover, Isabelle. In the novel, Isabelle disappears once war breaks out: this is not a time of romance. On stage, augmented with folk elements of music and trench song, some sentimentality has been reasserted. “It is a love story at the end of the day,” the producer told an audience in the museum, largely composed of regional theatre box-office staff.

Such is the collision of remembrance and the commemoration industry, where sprawling narratives can be tamed or traduced into handy clichés. ( War Horse , running in Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, is one telling example.) Wagstaff seemed aware of the risks, though, dutifully alert to the quiet anxiety of Faulks’ characters, that the war will one day be erased from recollection. “So we won’t forget,” she says.

Indeed, Wagstaff and Faulks are now co-adapting the first novel of the author’s French Trilogy, The Girl at the Lion d’Or , for the screen and are collaborating on two more adaptations. Birdsong , though, remains an immensely personal investment for Faulks. “I’m both uncritical of my work and hypercritical of what others have done to it,” he says. (Of the BBC’s 2012 TV series, he says, with damning faint praise, “There was much to admire.”)

There remains a curious tension in his relationship to this version of Birdsong ; keen to show he can stay out of its way, while maintaining a conspicuous, almost jealous presence within it. One night last year, he even performed a cameo role during Birdsong ’s UK tour, and will reprise it this year.

Now the film rights have returned to Faulks, he is keen to adapt it himself; to preserve this memory of the first World War for which Birdsong ’s theatrical version may count as a part of a strategic campaign. The battles that began a 100 years ago have long since been won. But the war isn’t over.

Birdsong is at Everyman , Cork, from May 12th to 17th

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