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Interview: The director of Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong on the show which will capture the horrors of war at Cheltenham's Everyman Theatre

By Gloucestershire Echo  |  Posted: January 21, 2014

By Jonathan Whiley

L-R Sebastian Faulks and Alastair Whatley at the Birdsong Launch at the National Army Museum, 13 January Credit Jack Ladenburg.

Sebastian Faulks and Alastair Whatley at the national launch of Birdsong

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BIRDS hold a certain powerful symbolic resonance with war. I was once told that in the ruins of Auschwitz – the notorious Nazi concentration camp – you will never hear a bird sing.

I dismissed it as myth – but I was wrong. Within minutes of standing in the eerie landscape on a visit several years ago the silence was deafening.

The use of bids in Sebastian Faulks’ epic love story, Birdsong, is a devastating indicator of mood and atmosphere set against the catastrophic backdrop of the First World War.

Birds are symbolic of innocence and the natural ability of life to flourish and how war can take that away so cruelly.

Faulks’ vintage tale – the Big Read at Cheltenham Literature Festival last year – has captured readers’ imagination ever since it was published in 1993 and a national theatre adaptation hopes to do the same.

Directing and producing the ambitious project which has the full backing of Faulks and heads to Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre next month is Alastair Whatley and it’s clear that they could not have found a more passionate man for the job.

“It’s a big ambitious undertaking,” Alastair said, chatting to The Buzz at the National Army Museum in London where a launch event for the national tour is taking place.

“It’s a profound and moving love story, based on Sebastian’s incredible novel and people who come and see the show are very passionate about it.

“You don’t always get that; sometimes you have to win audiences round.

“But this time it’s about reassuring them we’re going to look after the story that they have treasured and loved in their heads.”

The novel centres on pre-war France where a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, embarks on a passionate and dangerous affair with the beautiful Isabelle Azaire that turns their world upside down.

As the war breaks out over the idyll of his former life, Stephen must lead his men through the carnage of the Battle of the Somme and through the sprawling tunnels that lie deep underground.

Although the show toured last year – this year’s outing, according to Alastair, promises to be bigger and better.

“We staged it in 2013 and we did a big tour that went all over the country,” he said.

“Rachel and I watched one of the early performances and we were very proud of it but we kept thinking ‘oh it’s a shame we didn’t get that bit right or I wish we could tweak that’.

“And then we realised that we hadn’t finished our journey with the play and that 2014 being a big centenary year meant we could be part of how we talk about the First World War.

“I have to trust that my vision of the piece is going to have something to say and show the novel in a way you may not have not have seen it before.”

The way we mark the First World War’s 100th anniversary has been something of a political hot potato in recent months with Education Secretary Michael Gove criticising TV programmes such as sitcom Blackadder which in his view “denigrate patriotism and courage by depicting the war as a misbegotten shambles”.

“It’s a period of time that people have a lot of conflicting emotions about,” Alastair said.

“It was seen firstly as a great success and then through Blackadder there was a revisionist take that eventually built up that it was lions led by donkeys and we’re beginning to reshape that.

“People may have studied it at school through

Blackadder and read about the mud and the lice and the trenches but what about the human stories behind that? That’s what Birdsong gives you.”

Alastair says the most important aspect is engaging an audience which can use the show to feed the imagination.

“Theatrically lots of students are brought up on a diet of soaps, not all of them, but we’re all guilty of it; we’re not required to use our imaginations,” he said.

“What theatre does so wonderfully is require us to use that part of our brains that we’re beginning to lock off.

“It’s crucial that people keep going to the theatre to re-ignite that part of the imagination.

“Collective storytelling is in our bones, it’s in our DNA, it binds us together and we can’t lose it.

“Blackadder has a role to play but there’s a danger of oversimplifying and young people are very impressionable.

“There’s a danger you mistake a sitcom for historical fact. While Michael Gove’s comments could be seen as a critique on teachers and I think he’s been slightly misrepresented, it’s about how that tool is used and presented. It should be presented as one view of the war.

“Children have to be taught to think for themselves.”

Birdsong runs from February 17 to 22 at Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre. For tickets, call 01242 527572 or visit www.everyman.org.uk

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