WORLD War I, “the war to end all wars,” began 100 years ago this summer. There will be commemorations, remembrance services, linked programmes and television documentaries. In Ireland, we will experience a powerful evocation of that time in the play Birdsong, which comes to The Everyman, Cork, in early May, for its only Irish date of an extended tour.
Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of the Sebastian Faulks novel has attracted capacity audiences wherever it has played, often moving them to tears.
Directed by Alistair Whatley, for The Original Theatre Company, this story of love and courage is set before, during and after the Great War, and performed by a company that includes Olivier-nominated actor and former Blue Peter presenter, Peter Duncan, and Jonny Clarke, from TV series Hollyoaks.
It is never easy for an author to have his work adapted for the stage, but Faulks has praised Wagstaff for her visionary script, which brings to life that unimaginable world of pre-war France, through the carnage of the Somme to the terrifying sapper tunnels that wander deep beneath enemy lines.
It’s not the first time this has been done. RC Sherriff’s Journey’s End, in 1928, Joan Littlewood’s searing attack in Oh What A Lovely War, in 1963, inter alia; and, more recently, Blackadder Goes Forth, with the blackest of comedic endings. Birdsong, though, doesn’t use comedy. It is the experience of a young man clinging to the memory of love and life, amid unimaginable horror.
In 2006, Wagstaff first approached Faulks for permission to adapt his book for the stage. “It had struck me, when I’d first read it, 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,” she says.
Faulks was puzzled. “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 also sceptical. Birdsong is quite a novelistic novel: it draws upon all the techniques of fiction,” he says. Wagstaff, however, knew it could work and argued persuasively until he agreed. When he received the first draft, “I saw that she had understood the book and I felt that there was potential in what she’d done.”
And there was. Last year’s hugely successful UK tour was seen by 75,000 people, and received four- and five-star reviews.
Now, it is being remounted for 2014, the centenary of those appalling events, which ended a older, simpler world.
In the introduction to his bestselling book, Faulks recounts how he was left near-speechless at the age of 12 after reading aloud the names of those at his school who had died in the two world wars.
“The list was so long that I was treated that night for a sore throat,” he says poignantly. That incident brought home to him, as nothing else could have done, the full horror of war. Now, both he and Wagstaff 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, ‘that could be me’,” Faulks says.
Wagstaff, too, has always been fascinated by the First World War. “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. It’s a story we must never forget,” she says.
Wagstaff, who adapted Faulks’s The Girl at the Lion d’Or for BBC Radio 4 and is working on two screenplays with him, says that Birdsong, while first and foremost a brilliant work of fiction, gives extraordinary insight into what it must have been like to witness such suffering, and loss, on an unprecedented scale.
More than 16m people died, and another 20m were seriously wounded, savagely altering the very basics of human continuation in many European countries for a generation or more.
The experience of loving a book, and then seeing a dramatisation, can be very mixed. Sometimes, we are delighted, sometimes we cry ‘but that’s not how I imagined it.’ In the case of Birdsong, says Faulks, “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. The play exists on its own terms.”
It is 20 years since Birdsong was published, to glowing reviews and sales of more than three million. Now, the play takes up the story. And we have a chance to see it here, in Ireland. Only one venue, only one week.
But is it relevant to us, to our own experiences? Yes. Most definitely, yes. To every country, to every culture. Are we never going to learn from the example of history? Birdsong might just achieve the impossible.
* Birdsong, The Everyman, Cork, May 12-17. www.everymancork.com, 021-4501673. Trailer can be seen on www.birdsongthetour.com