BWW Interview: Director Steph Dewar Talks BIRDSONG at Progress Theatre
On November 11, 2018, people everywhere will commemorate the centenary of the end of World War One with events, speeches, prayers, and moments of silence.
At the Progress Theatre in Reading, a special performance of Birdsong, Rachel Wagstaff's adaptation of the novel by Sebastian Faulks, is being mounted to commemorate the lives lost to the war, and to raise money for British Legion.
Why did you want to stage Birdsong?
It's an adaptation of an absolutely beautiful novel by Sebastian Faulks. Having the two strands of the love story and the war story just works so well to really bring home how terrible the war is.
I'm incredibly passionate about this play - I had to work incredibly hard to get the rights to do it.
There's so much in this story. What can someone in the audience expect to feel when they watch it?
Oh, it's a roller coaster! It's sad - it's incredibly sad at times - but there is actually a lot of humour. It focuses on the camaraderie between the troops and the friendships that they build. Throughout that, you see the humour that they had to find to survive. And then there is the love story. So there is passion, there is love, there is angst, so it really is a roller coaster.
I understand you're collaborating with the There But Not There project?
It's a national campaign involving cast-iron silhouettes. We've been granted two silhouettes to display during the run of Birdsong. They'll be in the audience. They won't disrupt the view, but they will be in people's view as they watch the play, so it's a reminder of those that never made it home.
What has it been like working at the Progress?
I've been a member of the Progress for - I think it's eight years now - and I love this theatre. The crew are amazing, and I am so lucky to have such amazing actors.
There are 12 people in the Birdsong cast and they are all completely committed to this. I think doing it in the centenary year makes it even more special for them. They've put so much work in the research. We've been to the Imperial War Museum, and they are all so invested in making this as real as they can.
Tell us about your trip to the museum
We went in September, just to really immerse ourselves in the history. We tried to get as much of a sense as we could of what it was like. It was amazing, heartbreaking, completely overwhelming, We spent the entire day looking at exhibits and reading diary entries and talking about things from the First World War exhibit.
What has working with this kind of material been like for the actors?
We try to have a bit of a laugh at rehearsals. There's been plenty of cake - cake helps a lot. And it's such a tight-knit team, everyone supports each other. It's emotionally taxing, but I think you need that. If you were rehearsing something like this and you didn't feel it directly, that wouldn't be right.
If someone needed one more reason to come see Birdsong, what would it be?
Doing a show like this is a really relevant way of remembering the First World War. The War is not in living memory any more, and I'm really passionate about trying to keep it in people's minds and take it forward for the next generation and make sure it doesn't get lost.
It was such a massive event in history, and so many people suffered and died. You speak to anybody, and they had a family member who was affected by that war. And in this day and age, I think it's important to remember how wrong things can get, and that, as humans, we should all care for each other, and take it forward so it doesn't happen again.
Birdsong runs at the Progress Theatre in Reading 8-17 November. A special commemorative performance will be held on the afternoon of 11 November, with proceeds going to British Legion.
Production photo credit: Richard Brown