Written by Rachel Wagstaff, Birdsong is adapted from the novel by Sebastian Faulks. The current cast also includes Peter Duncan, Edmund Wiseman and Emily Bowker. Touring during the 100th anniversary of the First World War, Birdsong tells a mesmerising story of love and courage, before and during the war.
I recently spoke to Max about what drew him to Birdsong, who the show speaks to and making the transition from telly to theatre…
Birdsong is very different to what you have been up to recently; what were your first impressions when the show came up?
Well I’ve got a key interest in military history as it is, so I was intrigued when I first heard about this. I knew of the book as a kid, but when I read the script I was so moved as the characters are not a reflection of the propaganda we saw at the time. They are just people like you and I who were in this ghastly situation, then there is also this love story within it. For me it is so truthful and there is no glorification of war or heroes in any way, they really were just people.
And what drew you to the role?
From Tipper’s point of view, what moved me even more was this fifteen year old lad who was thinking it was a great idea from the propaganda, but then we get to know his story. You can’t imagine being on the front line at fifteen years old! He represents the panic and fear of what the war would have been like, that’s what drew me to the part.
Birdsong has been touring for a few years, how do you feel about coming into an established show?
I never saw the play before reading the script, so I came into rehearsals with a fresh mind and not basing it on anything I’d seen before. I’ve read bits of the book now for a bit more context, but other than that I’ve just stuck to the script. It has been easier to come in with an open mind, for me that is important.
Have you been given freedom to do your own thing with the role?
To an extent, I think that because it is such a well-known book and so many people have got their opinions about how Tipper should be played we have to respect that. I’ve been working closely with the directors to try and create that.
What was the atmosphere like in rehearsals?
Well it was all very new for me. Coming into a professional theatre environment, the rehearsal time is very intense. It’s a lot more about enhancing your research and bringing that into the rehearsal room. When you’re working on TV, particularly on a continuing drama, you create the character yourself, whereas with this the character is already written for you… and in this case it has been since 1993. It has been intense but enjoyable as well, Alastair (Whatley, director) is great at combatting the excitement.
Did everyone click from the beginning?
Tensions aren’t as high as they probably will be [laughs], but everybody gets on really well. This is my first tour so I don’t know yet what it will be like in a few months. It sounds like living with people and working so closely for so long can be intense, but we’re all getting on really well. It’s a very mixed company which is nice.
What can someone who doesn’t know much about Birdsong expect from the show? It’s quite a big journey!
It is! I think people will see a new side of war drama that they maybe haven’t seen before, it’s very hard-hitting but there are also these wonderful light-hearted moments. I think what is great about Birdsong is that every character has their own story; the soldiers are not just seen as soldiers. People will be able to relate to it. You are torn between the hardship and love, but it is this story of friendship as well. It is moving! I think it speaks to all audiences, even people studying it for GCSE. There are characters of almost every generation which is nice, you don’t always get that.
Is theatre something you have been wanting to do for a while?
I’ve always wanted to do elements of theatre. For me it wasn’t just that this was a theatre gig, I wanted to do it because I was so moved by the script. This is going to one of my favourite theatres in England, the Bristol Old Vic which was another deciding factor!
How have you found the change from telly to theatre?
Obviously Waterloo Road was so very different to this, there were twelve of us younger adults all living together in such a close environment and the work hours were so long – I would be doing seventy-two hour weeks. This is different because you get a release when you can go home and have some time for yourself. With telly you can get away with being self-indulgent because you are so exposed by the camera. With theatre you need to feel that the company can work together, and that is what has been so great.
Is it strange to think that Waterloo Road is now over?
I think everything has its day. As an actor that’s what we do it for, we do a stint and then we move onto the next project. For me I was lucky that I came out of Waterloo Road, had an ITV pilot and then moved onto this. I was sad to see it go because I had such a great time and I learnt a lot from some really wonderful people, but everybody has to move on so coming into Birdsong has been a great experience.
Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)
Birdsong tours the UK until July 2015. Please visit www.birdsongthetour.com for further information, full tour dates and tickets.