Even Sebastian Faulks thinks Birdsong is a tough novel to adapt for the stage. Rachel Wagstaffe’s adaptation, however, did the best possible job of it.
One common misconception about playwriting is that adaptations is an easy way out. Someone else has done the difficult work with the creative side, one might think, and all you have to do is the technical task of transplanting it to the stage. On the contrary, it’s a fiendishly difficult job. There’s all sorts of pitfalls whether you are doing stage play to screen play, screen play to novel, novel to stage play, or anything the other way round. Amongst the challenges of a novel is the tough choice of what to put in and what to leave out – and anything more than 200 pages long will require huge cuts. And when you’re trying to adapt something as legendary as Sebastian Faulks’s acclaimed masterpiece Birdsong, you are trying to live to to impossibly high expectations. So when Rachel Wagstaff had a go at it, the story goes, Sebastian Faulks himself said it was “bonkers” to try.
And yet here we are, just over three years on, and Birdsong is now touring as a highly successful production by the Original Theatre Company. Now, the cynics amongst you will be aware that it’s perfectly possible to have a commercial success, either on the West End or a film, with a poor adaptation that sells itself on the strength on the book it’s butchering. So to clear any nagging doubts, don’t worry: this is a damned good adaptation of story that was extremely tough to bring to the stage.