The Suffolk director who is bringing Birdsong back to Bury
- Credit: Archant
As a young lad Alastair Whatley took his first trips to the theatre in Bury St Edmunds. Like Peter Hall before him he looked around the Georgian theatre’s spectacularly ornate auditorium and was spellbound by the magical possibilities that theatre offered.
Fast-forward 20 years and Alastair is artistic director of his own theatre company, the Original Theatre Company, and he’s bringing his critically acclaimed production of Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong back to his home town.
Alastair believes that the play represents the perfect commemoration of the lives and the sacrifices made by those who served in the First World War and is particularly pertinent in this centenary year.
After two years of development, he feels that the stage version of Birdsong can now be viewed not only as a faithful adaptation of a well-loved novel but as a theatrical work of art which deserves to be enjoyed in its own right.
They play has been adapted by Rachel Wagstaff who has revised her original version which ran in London and was directed by Trevor Nunn. West End critic Dominic Cavendish wrote: “It’s a tribute to Alastair Whatley’s superb touring revival of Rachel Wagstaff’s stage adaptation of the novel – better structured than the sniffed-at version premiered in the West End in 2010 by Trevor Nunn – that it left me choked up and blinking back the tears at the end.”
Alastair says it was very much a team effort.
“I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved with this show. It’s a wonderful piece of theatre and I am so pleased to be finally coming to the Theatre Royal and putting a first-class play on the very stage where I first discovered theatre.”
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Alastair was born and raised in Whepstead, just outside Bury St Edmunds, and went to Old Buckenham School in Ipswich before attending The Perse school in Cambridge. But, his overwhelming teenage memory is of discovering the magic of theatre.
“I grew up watching plays at the Theatre Royal. I was around 15/16 when I started coming here regularly. Then I started getting involved in amateur theatre and putting on plays at school.
“I was going to read history at Cambridge, then changed at the last minute because I wanted to do drama. I had no idea how I was going to get into it. My Dad’s a solicitor and my Mum works for Nicky’s Way Hospice. I don’t come from a theatrical background at all. There were no contacts, no connections, just a lot of enthusiasm.”
Alastair started his theatrical career at Royal Holloway university where he studied drama. Three happy years were spent staging a series of plays but a failed bid to stage an outdoor production of Twelfth Night led to the creation of The Original Theatre Company.
“I put in this bid to do an outside production but they saw me as far too big a financial risk. My friend was the president and he had a bet that I couldn’t do it. So to prove a point I set up a short tour of people’s back gardens, some here in Bury, some in the rival Quadrangle at Royal Holloway, but a few months later The Original Theatre Company, was born and everything suddenly spiralled.
We built a tour taking in 22 different theatres from the Lyric Hammersmith to the Edinburgh Festival. It was the perfect example of how not to stage a theatre tour. I had no training just pure youthful enthusiasm. It was just a case of having confidence. I don’t know where it came from. It just seemed to happen.”
At the age of 21 he was employing 12 actors, four stage managers and found himself building two sets, All his life savings went into his fledgling theatre company. “I had to take out the biggest graduate loan to pay everyone’s wages at the end and I was left crippled with debt. But over three years I clawed my way back. I was determined to make it work.”
Alastair built his theatrical reputation with a series of well received outdoor productions. “We did The Taming of the Shrew in the Abbey Gardens in Bury, the following year A Midsummer Night’s Dream and then a show called Shakespeare’s R & J about four school lads taking on Romeo and Juliet.
“After that we started reviving great plays like Vincent in Brixton, and the scale just kept increasing. That came from the desire to do the best production possible with the best people. It wasn’t a need to be famous or anything like that but a need to stage plays that I wanted to see and be excited by.
“On Birdsong I am producer, director, the understudy and the German at the end – and the face on the poster because we needed to start the publicity before we had cast the show.”
Alastair’s work on Birdsong started after a chance meeting with playwright Rachel Wagstaff shortly after he had attended Trevor Nunn’s production of the first draft of her play.
“I bumped into Rachel and invited her to see our production of Our Country’s Good at Peterborough and we spoke quite honestly about the West End production of Birdsong, about the fact that I came away feeling that it hadn’t given me exactly what I had wanted and we agreed the best way to tell the story was as a memory piece and to up the level of theatricality.
“She said that she had re-written the play and re-structured it and I set about trying to convince her agent and the rights holders that we were the best people to re-stage this most amazing story.”
Alastair said transferring the story onto the stage was always going to be a daunting task.
“The material is amazingly rich and dense and terrifying. It introduced the world to these sappers who tunnelled under no-man’s land in 1915-16 and go 60 feet beneath the surface where they are waging war in a space so small you can barely stand. It’s described in the play as a hell within a hell.”
Bizarrely, although Alastair and Rachel revere Faulk’s original novel they have learned that you can’t be too precious when adapting it for another medium.
“Although Sebastian rubber stamps our work, Rachel has got bolder in her adaptation. It’s her play although it’s based on his book. When you transfer a story from one medium to another it changes. You have to be true to the source material but then you have to make it in your own.”
He said he continues to be dazzled by Rachel’s love for the material and the tenacious way she keeps pruning and revising the script.
“Rachel started work on this is 2006, she has attended endless workshops and has written over 100 drafts. She is in rehearsals all the time and is constantly refining scenes, trying to make them better.
“For those who saw it in Cambridge and at the New Wolsey last year, I think they will see a different show. We have fleshed out the love story with Isabelle, which is very difficult to do on stage because it is very nuanced, it’s all about looks and gazes.
“We have also restructured some of the memories. It’s a lot stronger and shorter. We shaved about 10 minutes off the running time and it works much better because everything is sharper.
“You also have to respect the men on the front lines. You can’t go: ‘Oh, how awful?’ because these didn’t think like that. They laughed, they joked and they just got on with it. They made the most of a bad situation. That was their strength.
“I hope this play will really engage audiences and make them want to talk about what they have seen. It is very much of the time and not a pallid recreation of a novel but something that lasts and will travel home with them.”
Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, adapted by Rachel Wagstaff, directed by Alastair Whatley, is at The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from April 22-26. It will also be at the Colchester Mercury from June 2-7.