Poignant First World War novel comes to Salisbury stage

Salisbury Journal: Rachel Wagstaff Rachel Wagstaff

BIRDSONG is one of the most poignant and highly-regarded works to be written about the First World War.

Sebastian Faulks’ 1993 novel interweaves the stories of soldiers Stephen Wraysford and Jack Firebrace with that of Stephen’s granddaughter, who is researching his experiences many years later.

The novel vividly brings to life the stories of individuals and how they lived during the Great War.

The challenge of adapting it for the West End stage in 2010 fell on the shoulders of 29- year-old writer Rachel Wagstaff.

She had wanted to speak to the author to ask for his opinion.

“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,” she said. “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.”

Faulks gave her permission to adapt his work and has been involved in the project ever since, offering her feedback and support and even making a cameo appearance in a production in Brighton.

Following the first run of the play, Wagstaff revised it for a seven-month tour last year and again for the new tour this year.

“It was a very steep learning curve,” she admits. “I was reasonably young when I first approached it and it was an epic project to work on, but I wanted to do it because I love the novel. It was a project of love; a project of passion.”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war in 1914 and Wagstaff was very conscious of that as she worked on the stage play.

“There is something about seeing real human beings, even if they are fictional, that helps us to understand what it might have been like,” she explains.

“A hundred years is a blink of an eye in terms of the whole of human history and we mustn’t forget what happened and what human beings are capable of.”

This new touring production is the first to include the novel’s more modern day strand, when Stephen’s granddaughter Elizabeth uncovers his journals and attempts to find out more about his life and experiences.

It stars George Banks as Stephen and Carolin Stoltz as his love interest Isabelle Azaire, while taking the role of Jack is Peter Duncan, best known as a former Blue Peter presenter.

“I probably shouldn’t say this, but I was a bit nervous because of that connection,”

says Wagstaff. “But as well as being a name from Blue Peter he’s also a wonderful, Olivier Award-nominated actor and he is perfect for the role. The main thing in casting is that you want someone who is right for the role.”

Faulks struck a chord with his novel and Wagstaff hopes she has managed to capture the essence of what fuelled her passion to see his story told on the stage.

“I tried to write something that Sebastian would approve of,” she says. “I think that if he approves, that means his fans will as well. I understand how possessive we get of books that we love because I am too.”

Birdsong is at Salisbury Playhouse from March 3 to 8.

Tickets at salisburyplayhouse.com or on 01722 320333.

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