From page to stage

Nicola Foley talks to Rachel Wagstaff, writer of the acclaimed stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ 'Birdsong', which runs in Cambridge later in May

Sebastian Faulks’ outstandingly successful novel Birdsong – a tale of love set against the horrors of World War I – has become a modern literary classic on a scale rarely seen. Published in 1993, it’s sold over three million copies in the UK alone, is a regular fixture on school syllabuses and often appears in polls of the nation’s favourite books of all time. All in all, a rather intimidating prospect for a hopeful young writer with ambitions of taking the novel from page to stage – but Rachel Wagstaff stepped up to the challenge (almost) undaunted, propelled by an unwavering belief that Birdsong would work powerfully well as a piece of theatre.

“I hoped to bring it to life afresh for current fans, while also taking it to a new audience of people who had always-meant-to-read-it-but-just-hadn’t-yet!” she says of her motivation. “I thought that if I could write something that got the stamp of approval from Sebastian, then there was hope that the millions of fans of his novels might like it, too.”

A lover of the book since her teenage years, Wagstaff had known from the moment she began to read Birdsong that she’d love to create a theatre adaptation. “Even then it had struck me how vividly it could work on stage,” she recalls. “I was encouraged to write a play when studying and, at the time, was very interested in the war poets, so wrote a play about the life of Rupert Brooke. It was staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and then had a small London transfer. I sent it to a few theatres, including the Orange Tree Theatre, where one of the literary team was very kind about the play. We talked about dramatising history and I mentioned how much I’d love to adapt Birdsong. Sheer coincidence but he had recently been working with Sebastian Faulks so he encouraged me to contact Sebastian via his agent. I did, and Sebastian, his agent and I then met, discussed ideas, and it went from there.”

 "This current production has now lasted longer than the First World War"

A first draft was written within six months, at which point she sent it off and endured an ‘agonising’ month-long wait for feedback. Eventually Faulks himself responded, glowingly praising her skill in capturing the heart of his novel and the voices and rhythms of his characters. From there, they worked closely together, with him providing feedback and encouragement throughout the process.

“The main challenge was balancing the responsibility I felt towards the novel and the real stories Sebastian was representing, versus the need to create a play that lived and breathed in its own right,” she says. “It was very helpful having Sebastian involved, realising that he was very behind artistic decisions and entirely supportive of any condensing, elision or simple cutting that had to be made.”

Everything came together beautifully, and it wasn’t long before the adaptation was picked up for a production in the West End. Fast forward to today and the stage show of Birdsong has been seen by more than 200,000 people, enjoying widespread critical acclaim and a remarkable lifespan which continues into 2018.

“Our director recently pointed out that this current production has now lasted longer than the First World War,” marvels Wagstaff. “It means a great deal that this final tour coincides with the final year of four years of the commemoration of the war. When you write something, you hope that it will mean something to other people, too.

“I really hoped audiences would respond in the way they have and I’m so... well, relieved is probably the best word, after all those years that it seems to engage and move people in the way it now does. I’m very grateful to all involved for pouring in heart and soul to make it such a powerful production and this year’s show, remounted by Charlotte Peters, is the most powerful yet.”

Currently dividing her time between adaptations of The Girl on the Train and Flowers for Mrs Harris, we’re set to hear much more from Wagstaff over the coming years – but are there any other novels she would love to bring to life on the stage? “Always. But right now, I’ve got two toddlers and far too many deadlines so I’m trying not to think beyond the current projects!” she says. “I’ll hope to come back to you on that one as one of my dream novels is actually set in Cambridge, so fingers crossed…”

Birdsong runs at Cambridge Arts Theatre 14-19 May and tickets are £19-£34