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Q&A with Rachel Wagstaff

Q&A with Rachel Wagstaff
posted 03 Jul 2018

What was it about Birdsong that made you want to adapt it?

I first read the book on the bus to and from school; I found it extremely moving and evocative and knew that, somehow, this book would always be important to me. Poring over it, I began to understand what it might have been like for an individual to be involved in such an extraordinary time in history. Because Sebastian’s writing is so visceral, I could picture it clearly and, perhaps because so much of it is so claustrophobic, I could also see it in a dark confined space. It struck me even then that this book would lend itself beautifully to the stage...

How did Sebastian Faulks react when you approached him?

He was incredibly polite, read my first play and said nice things about it, made the time to meet with me and talk through my ideas. He then graciously suggested that I write a draft - no harm done - and said that perhaps we could see...

At the time, you were a young and relatively unknown playwright. What gave you the confidence to persist?

Looking back, I think it was naivety rather than confidence. I believed that I understood this book, connected with it deeply, and was very keen to bring it to life on the stage. At the time, I thought that was enough. I don’t think I realised how well-known and highly regarded both Sebastian and his work were. That helped!

What kind of feedback did Sebastian give you as you worked on the script? Was it helpful?

Shortly after I delivered my first draft, I received a very kind email from Sebastian, saying how much he liked the script. We then met and spent hours going through the script line by line, Sebastian pointing out anything inaccurate or unrealistic. He was also quick to commend moments or lines that he particularly liked. He read quite a few drafts, came to various readings, meetings, workshop performances and previews, and was always generous and forthcoming with his thoughts. He has been incredibly supportive during the whole, sometimes humbling and/or gruelling, process. I realise I have been very lucky.

Is there greater pressure adapting the work of a living author?

Not from the author. But then, Sebastian somehow struck the perfect balance, responding when asked for advice but never interfering! As I got further into the process, I realised that actually the greatest pressure in this case came from choosing to adapt a book that is so very loved by so many people. When you read a book you like, it becomes ‘yours’, doesn’t it? I was very keen to make sure that Sebastian approved of what I wrote, feeling that if he liked my adaptation, that was halfway towards winning over all the fans of his work.

How do you hope it affects audiences?

I really hope that people enjoy watching a world brought to life in front of their eyes. Going to the theatre still feels special and magical to me. Living, breathing humans conjuring a story for a group of otherwise unconnected individuals who sit together in the dark! I would also dearly love it to move people. When I first approached Sebastian, there were five living British veterans from the First World War. With the death of Harry Patch, there is now not a single survivor left. So it feels more important than ever that we revive and honour such stories.

Lest we forget, lest we permit suffering on such a scale yet again.


Oxford Playhouse will be the final stop on the Birdsong tour, from 16 to 21 July

Sebatian Faulks will also be reprising his cameo role on stage on the Wednesday & Thursday evening performances and will take part in the post-show talk after Wednesday's perormance. 

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