When Sebastian Faulks' fourth novel was published in 1993, he probably couldn't have guessed it would have the longevity it has. Yet, almost two decades on, Faulks' First World War saga about young officer Stephen Wraysford's doomed love for married French woman Isabelle Azaire set against the back-drop of the Somme can be considered to be a modern classic. In 2003, the novel came thirteenth in a BBC survey to find Britain's favourite book, and has been adapted for film, stage, TV and radio.
Birdsong's latest incarnation comes courtesy of the Original Theatre Company, who breathe fresh life into Rachel Wagstaff's stage adaptation which arrives in Glasgow next week. Wagstaff's original adaptation of Birdsong was first seen in 2010 in a production by Trevor Nunn that. That version was a straightforward linear account of the book that ran at more than four hours long. Since being picked up by Original, Wagstaff has revised the piece extensively, so it moves fluidly across time-zones in a way that it didn't quite capture before. There has also been a television version of the book penned by Abi Morgan.
“It's strange,” admits Original director, Alistair Whatley, “because we';ve started to get people coming to see the show whose first experience of the story is through seeing the TV mini-series rather than reading the book. You're never going to please everyone all of the time, but it's ignited an interest, which our version of Sebastian's story can take advantage of, even though it's very different.
“It would be easy to sentimentalise the war onstage, but these men weren't sentimental. They were professional soldiers there to do a job, and I think they would hate it if they thought their role was being sentimentalised. In Birdsong, you see the First World War through the opposite of rose-tinted glasses. But we also have to make it clear that it's not really about the Somme.”
As Whatley makes clear, it is the romance between Stephen and Isabelle that provides Birdsong's heart. As Isabelle, former Hollyoaks stalwart Sarah Jayne Dunn is clearly relishing the opportunity to play such a tragic heroine who forms the pivot of both Faulks' original story and the play.
“It's a huge emotional show,” Dunn says. “There's a lot to get across in the first few scenes, and not much time to get across the conflicts about her being married, being in an unhappy and abusive relationship, suddenly finding this soul-mate, and how everything's at stake for her in terms of her status. At that time a woman just didn't have an affair, and she would've been disregarded by her family and her father. So she's just a complex character, but it's such a romantic story within the context of all the chaos around it.”
Dunn is unequivocal about her feelings for Isabelle.
“I love her,” she says. “I feel sorry for her. Straight away I felt connected to her. I think she's just ended up in this situation she had no real control over. Isabelle is very similar to her mother, and her husband Rene is very similar to her father, so she's just mirrored this family unit, because it's all she's ever known. She's dreadfully unhappy, and then this ray of light comers along, and it's like a fairy-tale for her. It's what every girl's dreamed of, but it's complicated. It's not like there's a Disney happy ending. It's real life. I can really feel for her, and connect with her, because you want them to be together, even though it's so wrong.”
Original's production of Birdsong is the latest in a slow trickle of First World War set plays which have toured main stages over the last couple of years. As well as Nunn's original take on Birdsong, there have been two productions of R.C. Sherriff's trench-set Journey's End. With one of these being presented by Original, it's clearly a terrain which captures the imagination, both of audiences and the company. Whatley in ties the fascination with the era to the success of TV drama, Downton Abbey.
“It's the idea of class,” he says. “That's something we've always kind of hushed up, but Downton Abbey has suddenly made it fashionable to look at the idea of having butlers and private servants. The First World War was the time when the class system was almost shattered for good. Thirty-three per cent of public school boys who went over there didn't come back, so an entire generation of the ruling class was lost and damaged forever, so the class system in Britain had to change. It took thirty or forty years, and it's still changing, but the First World war was a huge catalyst for that.”
The presence of so many First World war set plays may also have something to do with the build up to the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the war, which will be commemorated in 2014.
“It feels like everyone's beginning to have a retrospective look at the war now,” Whatley muses. “It feels like a different life, and it is a different life, but you can almost touch the history. We're just one generation away from it. When was at school, a First World war veteran came in and spoke to us, and that's history you can touch in my lifetime. It feels like it belongs to a different world, but that gentleman who spoke to us was there. He saw it. Sebastian said that when he wrote the book, he stood on the battlefield and held hands with a veteran who sobbed as he relived the events that happened to him.
“The thing about the anniversary is to not see it as distant history, because it's very real and very now. The reality of warfare and the day to day reality of soldiers hasn't changed. The life of a soldier is one of moments of boredom punctuated by terror and fear and chaos. That will never change, no matter what the weapons used.”
Birdsong, Kings Theatre, Glasgow, April 8th-13th
The Herald, April 2nd 2013