Suffolk director pioneers digital theatre to bring Birdsong to audiences

PUBLISHED: 11:08 27 June 2020 | UPDATED: 11:06 01 July 2020

Scene from the original tour of Birdsong. Many of the cast are back for the digital production  Photo: Jack Ladenburg

Scene from the original tour of Birdsong. Many of the cast are back for the digital production Photo: Jack Ladenburg


With theatres still closed, a Suffolk-based theatre company has harnessed digital technology to reach new audiences and to raise funds for the Royal British Legion

Scene from the original tour of Birdsong. Many of the cast are back for the digital production  Photo: Jack LadenburgScene from the original tour of Birdsong. Many of the cast are back for the digital production Photo: Jack Ladenburg

Bury St Edmunds-based theatre director Alastair Whatley knows Sebastian Faulks’s best-selling novel Birdsong inside out. He has performed in it and directed four national tours of the stage version, including stops at The New Wolsey and the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, but nothing could have prepared him for challenge of mounting a virtual production shot on Zoom, featuring remote actors, performing against computer generated scenery.

Now, in the fourth week of production, and with the July 1 deadline looming he’s not afraid to admit that his theatrical knowledge and technical resources have been stretched to breaking point in order to get this groundbreaking production ready for its opening night.

The production by The Original Theatre Company is important not just from a technical point of view but because it is being staged in conjunction with the Royal British Legion, raising awareness of their work on the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

For this production of Birdsong, Alastair and writer Rachel Wagstaff, who adapted the novel for the stage, have had to go back basics to bring this new version of the World War One story to a new audience.

Scene from the original tour of Birdsong. Many of the cast are back for the digital  production  Photo: Jack LadenburgScene from the original tour of Birdsong. Many of the cast are back for the digital production Photo: Jack Ladenburg

Alastair said: “This isn’t an adaptation of the stage show. This is something entirely new created for actors to do from home.

“It is a fully cast, abridged virtual production of Rachel Wagstaff’s highly acclaimed adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s best-selling novel Birdsong and will be told using video technology, live performance, sound design and music, all weaved together to create a unique portrayal of one of the greatest love stories in modern literature, the cast will be in full costume, with digitally designed scenes and lighting, making this the most ambitious online production yet.”

Birdsong tells a mesmerising story of love and courage, before and during the war. In pre-war France, a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, embarks on a passionate and dangerous affair with the beautiful Isabelle Azaire that turns their worlds upside down. As the war breaks out, Stephen must lead his men through the carnage of the Battle of the Somme and through the sprawling tunnels that lie deep underground beneath the battle fields. Faced with the unprecedented horror of the war, Stephen clings to the memory of Isabelle and the idyll of his former life as his world explodes around him.

Now that the production is coming together, Alastair is very honest about the obstacles he and the production team have had to scale. “Had I known what this production would entail when we started out, I don’t think I would have ever gone near it. That said, I am now incredibly pleased that we have done it but it has been hard work.”

Still from the digital production of Birdsong  Photo: Orignal Theatre CompanyStill from the digital production of Birdsong Photo: Orignal Theatre Company

He said that staging a play remotely has meant that even the simplest needs become major mountains that need to be climbed. “For instance: costumes. Normally, you can get period costumes, World War One soldiers uniforms from various theatrical companies but, of course, under lockdown, none of them were operating so we had to beg, steal and borrow from people we knew or friends of friends of friends, anyway we could and then get them to the actors who would be working remotely.

“Finding the guns was an even bigger challenge and when we found some, we then had to move them around the country so different people could shoot scenes with the same rifles because we didn’t have enough to go round.

“We also had to buy and ship out green screens to all the actors so that we could drop in the digital backgrounds for the various scenes.”

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He said that early on during rehearsals it became clear that their ambition to stage a remote live performance using the video conferencing system Zoom wouldn’t work.

“We thought it would be relatively straight forward once we had mastered the timing and got the actors to load up the appropriate backgrounds but it became clear that the inherent technical challenges of putting a large group together on Zoom were magnified ten-fold as soon as you tried to do stage something as technically demanding as a live stage show.

“The problems were exacerbated by the fact that everyone was using the internet because of lockdown and the service providers reduced the bandwidth, so there was more lag, so you couldn’t get the timing right between people, actors started losing internet connections and the sound was no good and it looked as if we might be forced to abandon the whole thing.

“But, instead of giving up we came up with a novel solution. We got the actors to record their roles on Zoom, scene by scene, up load them and we then hired an editor to stitch everything together, rather like you would in a movie, so that would mean that the timing and the pacing would be right and it would work as a play, as a piece of drama.”

Everything was shot on i-phone with a microphone attachment to get good sound and after four or five takes the scenes were uploaded for the editor to start work piecing everything together. Other challenges included getting the actors to find a performance space large enough to accommodate the green-screen and have a front-facing window so the faces would be properly lit and the lighting would be consistent for everyone no matter where they were in the country.

“The tunnel scenes were especially challenging because they had to be shot at night, in the pitch black, and takes that last three or four seconds took one and half hours to shoot because we had five actors around the country all trying to interact but what, at one time, looked like a farce in the making, has come together pretty well.”

The cast for the virtual production, made up from members of the previous four companies, will be Tom Kay (Stephen Wraysford), Madeleine Knight (Isabelle Azaire), Tim Treloar (Firebrace), Liam McCormick (Arthur Shaw), Malcolm James (Captain Gray), Poppy Roe (Jeanne Fourmentier), Jeffrey Hamer (Colonel Barclay), Stephen Boxer (Rene Azaire), Olivia Bernstone (Lisette Azaire), Samuel Martin (Evans), Max Bowden (Private Tipper), Christopher Harper (Levi), James Findlay (Cartwright) and Tony Green (Military Policeman), with narration by the novel’s author Sebastian Faulks.

“Getting Sebastian Faulks to provide the narration was a real coup and makes this really special. One of the joys of doing so many different versions of Birdsong is getting to know Sebastian and he and Rachel wrote out a draft of the narration and we recorded it.

“Also, in what would normally be the interval Sebastian has recorded an abridged section from the book describing, in a very moving way the battle itself. In the play, the first act goes up to the moment they go over the top and in act two we pick up the characters lives two years later. Sebastian did that for the last date of the original tour in 2016 and it worked so well and was so powerful that we thought we would like him to record something for this new version and his voice just carries so much weight and authority. It’s perfect.”

While the technical side has proved challenging Alastair is thrilled that the filmed version is offering audiences a new insight into minds of the characters. “In the stage version we always struggled to show the motivation of Stephen because he exists so much in his own head. It was difficult to show that to an audience and we were always trying to find ways of making that real to people in a theatre.

“What we have hear is the ability of actors to use the camera close-up to show in their faces what they are thinking and that I think adds a whole new dimension to the storytelling.”

Although, Alastair has yet to see the finished footage cut together, the rough cuts he has seen, have convinced him that they are pioneering a new form of virtual theatre. “It’s not television, it’s not film and I can say that I have not seen anything quite like it before. It’s using the internet in a whole new way. If you have been watching David Tennant and Michael Sheen in Staged on the BBC, they are using the internet to record their conversations but they are not staging a drama with a large cast interacting with one another, they are not using digital backgrounds. It is two blokes being funny on a conference call, so I do think we are breaking new ground here.”

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, adapted by Rachel Wagstaff, is being streamed online on July 1 2020 by the Original Theatre Company, raising money and awareness for the Royal British Legion, and tickets can be booked in advance on the website.

Tickets cost £12.50 (standard) £15 (premium which includes a digital programme). A percentage of the ticket price will go to the Royal British Legion. For those who cannot join the transmission live the new production will be available for streaming until 11.59pm on Saturday July 4.

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