'Sebastian Faulks told me I was bonkers': Rachel Wagstaff on bringing Birdsong to the stage

It is one of Britain's best-loved novels, but 'Birdsong' has always stumped screenwriters. So what made Rachel Wagstaff think she could bring it to the stage?

By Robert Epstein
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:00

The roll-call of big names who have been attached to the project is impressive: Sam Mendes, Michael Mann, Joe Wright and Peter Weir, to name a few. Yet, 17 years have passed and still there is no sign of the silver-screen adaptation of Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks' bestselling First World War epic of love and loss, camaraderie and abandonment, rampant sex and ruthless slaughter.

So how is it that, when it came to the stage version of the same novel, the job of adapting it was handed to a relative neophyte? "West Ham." Excuse me? "When I had my first meeting with Sebastian, I happened to get to his agent's offices half-an-hour early, so I went to a café to look through my notes. By chance, I saw a newspaper and thought, 'In Birdsong, Sebastian mentions football, so he's obviously a footballing man.' I took a guess that he supported a London team and looked up all their results. Somehow during our conversation, we got on to the subject, and I asked which team he supported. He said West Ham, and I was able to say, 'Oh yes, splendid victory' against whoever it was that week. It's always nerve-racking meeting someone you've admired for years, but after that, it was no longer two people and an agent sitting formally in a room; it was a moment of human contact, and it went well from there on."

Luck? Maybe. But if so, the 30-year-old Rachel Wagstaff has had an awful lot of it on her way to writing one of the most eagerly anticipated plays of the year. There was the chance sighting of an ad for a postgrad course at Rada. There was the director working with the human-rights organisation where she was volunteering, who took her first script to the Edinburgh Festival. There was the friend who bullied her into applying at the last second for the Old Vic's New Voices programme. And then there was the fateful meeting in 2005 with Charlie Miller, then literary manager at the Orange Tree Theatre.

"Charlie had read The Soldier [the play she'd put on at Edinburgh, about the First World War poet Rupert Brooke] and told me he'd loved it. He did that thing that theatres do, of asking what else you're thinking of writing, and I said Birdsong, as it's my favourite book. Charlie had just been working with Sebastian as a researcher on [the author's 2005 novel] Human Traces, so I asked if it would be all right for me to send an email to Sebastian through him. I wrote, 'Dear Mr Faulks, I love your work, is there any chance I might be able to adapt Birdsong for the stage? I'm a new-ish writer, but I'd happily send some of my work.'"

Cheeky? Certainly. But Faulks responded, "with a very gracious email", saying he thought Working Title had the stage as well as the film rights, but he'd check. They didn't; and she got the meeting with Faulks and his agent.

It is little wonder that she charmed the pair of them. Though confessing that she is softly spoken ("There were voice classes which taught us how to project at Rada; they didn't work"), Wagstaff is a warm presence, carrying her clear intellect lightly (she quotes freely from Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Shakespeare, but without a hint of pretension), is deeply passionate about her work (so much so that she refused to write creatively during her academic years, for fear that she would be told, crushingly, that it was not good enough) and has the most delightful affectation of writing with her pencil in the air as she talks.

Her lack of airs is, perhaps, attributable to her parents. Her mother works at a primary school, while her father used to work for London Transport's Unit for Disabled Passengers. Used to, before he realised his lifelong dream, in 1996, of driving a bus. The 176 route, to be exact, that runs from Oxford Circus to Penge. So enthusiastic is he about double-deckers that he has even written four books about them. Which brings us back to his daughter, and her love of the penned word.

Wagstaff started writing plays aged six. "My best friend from school and I used to write them together, modelling them loosely on Agatha Christies we'd seen on TV, then we'd perform them for her poor mother." But it wasn't until she was 16 that she was taken to a play she really enjoyed: A Doll's House, Henrik Ibsen's searing 1879 indictment of the role of women in 19th-century society.

Just as searing is the drama contained in Birdsong. The novel traces the story of Stephen Wraysford, an Englishman sent to learn his trade with the owner of a textile factory in France, only to begin a passionate affair with the man's wife. It does not end well. Years later, with the onset of war, Stephen finds himself just miles up the road, as a soldier at the Somme. Cue scenes of impossible claustrophobia in the tunnels under the trenches and some of the bloodiest descriptions of men being shot imaginable.

To adapt the novel for the stage is ambitious, to say the least. "Sebastian told me I was bonkers," admits Wagstaff. "But I'd been interested in the First World War from the age of 14. It was the poetry that drew me in – it was Owen, it was 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', it was when I learnt that he had died the week before Armistice Day and that his mother got the telegram on Armistice Day; there was something so pitiful about it. I lost a brother when I was younger, and there was something about learning about all these young boys who died when it could have been stopped, and seeing the bewildering effect on a family at the loss of a son, a brother.

"Yet it was only when I read Birdsong, when I was 17, that I realised what it might have been like to be an individual caught up in it. And knowing that the last few veterans are dying out, that Harry Patch, the last British survivor from the trenches, had died, makes it all the more important to keep these stories alive.

"After Sebastian gave me his blessing to write it, I went to Amiens, to the house where the first section of the novel is set, to the military sites. I saw all these preserved trenches, and I walked to Hawthorn Ridge, this beautiful cemetery among fields so gentle, so tranquil, and I went to a civil graveyard, where all the graves were so packed together, and seeing them, it was the first time I really understood why I had to write it. Birdsong implores us not to forget, to tell our children, lest we allow war on such a scale to happen again."

The adaptation has taken four years to come to fruition. But Wagstaff has had some high- calibre help along the way in the form not only of Faulks, who has offered notes on each update of the script, but also the play's director – one Trevor Nunn, whose involvement has brought the theatrical gravitas (and name) set to make Birdsong one of the hottest tickets in town. "I've loved every minute of working with Trevor," says Wagstaff. "He has a lovely sense of humour, he's very good with actors, and dramaturgically he's brilliant. His understanding of stagecraft is phenomenal. I feel very fortunate."

She is fortunate, too, to be working with one of theatre's leading set designers, John Napier. Just as Wagstaff has had to convey nigh-on pornographic sex scenes in the book through whispered words and stolen glances from her actors, so Napier has had to fit the epic scale of the Somme battlefields on the Comedy Theatre's 21ft by 24ft stage.

I'd imagined, I tell her, that the claustrophobia of the tunnel scenes would be effected through a darkly lit, cramped portion of the stage, to which she replies, "That's how I'd envisioned it, too. But it turns out the designer

is much better at designing things than I am in my head. It owes a lot to the power of the imagination." Men being cut to ribbons by gunfire, jaws being blown away – done by suggestion; and the constant shrill sound of shellfire? The deafening destruction? Reverb, echo and a very clever sound engineer.

But before anyone thinks Wagstaff really has been awfully lucky in the colleagues she has ended up with, there can be no doubt she has paid her dues. While teaching playwriting one day a week at the University of Hertfordshire to pay the bills ("My agent once told me the average writer earns £2,000 a year, which doesn't fill you with confidence"), in the past four years she has also written a well-received radio play of Faulks' The Girl at the Lion D'Or, two plays for Y Touring, the company for young people, a film "that will never get made", the first draft of a novel and treatments for a couple of other adaptations, as well as co-writing two musicals – one with Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens.

"We had a nice banter about football," she tells me of her relationship with the singer (is there a theme here?), "and we've developed the script for a year on and off. It's an allegorical telling of his life." Delays have come because Islam has moved his family to Dubai, but Wagstaff is sure the musical will come to fruition – and she's as certain she made as much of an impact on the singer as she did on Faulks. "When we first met, he bought lunch for me, the director and the producer. Because I was a bit nervous, I took a bite and somehow forgot to swallow, and started choking. This was about half an hour into the interview, and I had tears streaming down my face. The director gave me a massive smash on the back and after that, I thought, 'Well, I couldn't disgrace myself any more,' so I relaxed, we all found it very amusing, and we were there chatting away for hours." The girl certainly knows how to make an impact.

'Birdsong' is previewing now at the Comedy Theatre, London SW1 (tel: 0844 871 7622), and opens on 27 September

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments