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History brought to life in Birdsong at the Wycombe Swan
BIRDSONG by Sebastian Faulks reached number 13 in a list of the UK's top 100 books, chosen by the public. The story of love during wartime touched the hearts of many and it is now on a regional tour in theatres around the country. Rebecca Cain spoke to the show's director Alastair Whatley about its lasting appeal and how they adapted it for the stage.
Along with Rachel Wagstaff Alastair has been working on the new show of Birdsong since it was in the West End and they have published a whole new script.
He said: "We felt it was a bit linear as it was told in its original form.
"On stage it is hard to condense a book into two hours of stage time.
"We have tried to chip into the essence of the book and the spirit of it.
"It has become a memory play more than anything."
The story now starts in the war and then goes back to Stephen's memory.
The book's protagonist is Stephen Wraysford and focuses on different stages of his life both before and during World War One. It mainly focuses on his life in France before and during the war.
Before the war in France in 1910 he embarks on a passionate affair with Isabelle, which then haunts him throughout his war days.
But Alastair was quick to point out: "The stage show is an identity all on its own rather than an imitation of the book."
The author Sebastian Faulks is very involved with the play and said it is like turning a sculpture into a painting.
Alastair added: "The book is so beautiful we are so tempted to put everything in.
"But we went back and looked at key themes and big points he was trying to make."
On the first day of rehearsals he asked the cast to look at the name of the book and what that means.
"The first thing you think about is birdsong during war," he said.
"But there is birdsong throughout when Stephen and Isabelle first meet each other."
But he said essentially: "It is a love story with huge passion trying to survive."
Alastair asked the cast to look at the day to day living and not the war as a whole.
He said: "Military advisers said don't treat the First World War with kids gloves. We know a lot about it now... we see it a bit through tinted glasses. We see mud and all the prolific suffering.
"We don't see people trying to do their day jobs that are proud of what they are doing.
"In order to play those people you cannot judge the war. They didn't think the way we do now about the war."
He said the love between Stephen and Isabelle is like the biggest love of your life and magnify it by 10. And he said the show is an example of how memories work- it is an impression- a bit like a Monet Painting.
He didn't manage to complete the book the first time saying maybe he was too young.
He read it when he was about 20 and couldn't relate to the love story. But he re-read it in November 2011. And the love story now grabbed him rather than the war side.
He said: "I now think those first 100 pages are some of the most beautiful pieces of literature I have ever come across.
"The war story wouldn't work without the love story. It doesn't have the heart without. It would take out the beating heart and it is just the skin of Birdsong.
"It has to be there."
They spent months and months to find the actors for Stephen and Isabelle to find the right chemistry.
He said: "War scenes are easier to convey. When Isabelle and Stephen first see each other and have a look. You can be next to them and see 98 per cent of the detail.
"But how do you convey that to two people sitting in the gallery?
"You have to heighten moments and make those moments in the bigger sense."
But why does he think it remains popular?
He said: "Generally everyone has had a big love affair of some description they can relate to.
"That reunion scene. It is no different from many people's break ups..
"People have tough times of their own- they can relate to that."
And he said about the book and Sebastian Faulk's writing: "History is not far in the distance but something you can almost touch."
Birdsong is at the Wycombe Swan from February 12- 16. Tickets range from £16.50 to £23.50 from 01494 512000 or go to www.wycombeswan.co.uk
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