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No Catcalls for Birdsong

By • West End
There's a moment at the end of the Donmar's King Lear when the lights come up a fraction and we hear the distant sound of birds. It's an elegiac, poetic touch perfectly in keeping with Derek Jacobi's minutely observed performance.

The other birdsong in the West End is that heard by the soldiers at the end of the carnage in the French trenches of the First World War in Trevor Nunn's brilliant production of Rachel Wagstaff's play based on Sebastian Faulks's remarkable 1993 novel.

Both Faulks and Wagstaff took to the Comedy stage yesterday -- between the matinee and evening performances of Birdsong -- to discuss their work in front of an audience of two hundred or so schoolchildren.

As chairman, I had very little to do apart from prompt the early enquiries about the birth of the project. And an unexpected bonus: Ben Barnes, so perfect as Faulks's hero Stephen Wraysford, joined in too, just for fun.

Barnes spoke charmingly, and modestly, about his involvement in one or two of the earlier Birdsong film projects that have never got off the ground. And the minute he heard that Trevor Nunn was on board as director, he'd made himself irresistibly available. This was his first stage role since taking over in The History Boys in the West End four years ago. He squirmed a bit when I asked him about the boy band he formed after leaving the National Youth Music Theatre; he's a big star now, not only in the Narnia films, but for this superb performance at the Comedy.

Faulks himself then revealed that he had suggested to Imogen Stubbs, Sir Trevor's wife, at a literary function where they met, and happened to be sitting together, that her husband might want to direct the play. And so it turned out.

I like this idea of big shows being arranged on such an informal basis, though I'm sure the agents all piled in behind them later on. The only real surprise to me is that Birdsong has not been much recognised in the awards so far. The West End has, after all, produced only two new plays of note and substance this year: The Little Dog Laughed (which was American) and Birdsong. 

Wagstaff bubbled enthusiastically about why she had wanted to adapt the novel in the first place, and very interestingly about the choices she had made in doing so. Faulks admired her persistence in adopting what he thought was an impossible task, but has come round to both enjoy, and be proud of, the stage adaptation.

The other thing he has enjoyed about the whole process has been the company of actors and backstage folk, to such an extent that he is almost certain to write something himself now for the theatre.

This would be a major breakthrough. Once upon a time, novelists like Graham Greene and David Storey were always writing plays. But Faulks's peers and leading contemporaries -- such as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Jonathan Coe -- go straight to screen or cinema adaptation. You sense a mutinous hostility towards the theatre anyway in their work and public pronouncements.

We didn't have time to discuss this last night, but I wanted to ask Faulks about David Hare's submission that it's much harder to write a good play than it is to write a good novel. Perhaps once he's had a go, he will be able to either corroborate or refute this view.  

I'm delighted to learn, meanwhile, that Rachel Wagstaff herself is busily writing away, both original material and a couple of adaptations that have come her way since Birdsong. For the moment, she was keeping mum about them, as contracts have to be finalised and signed.

But I hope the theatre community doesn't come to the end of the year thinking that the only promising new playwrights to emerge were those already over-lauded teenagers at the Royal Court.    


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