The National Theatre’s War Horse: An Interview With Michael Morpurgo at the Birmingham Hippodrome

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Before being treated to a first night performance of War Horse at the Birmingham Hippodrome, fellow First Night Blogger Tal Fox and I were lucky enough to have the chance to interview author of the original War Horse novel, Michael Morpurgo. We asked him for his thoughts on the National Theatre‘s adaptation of his work, and how he thought it compared to Spielberg’s film version.

HK: What was your initial reaction when you were told people were looking to adapt your book for the stage?

MM: Disbelief really, disbelief for two reasons. First of all, it was the National Theatre on the phone and you don’t get calls from the National Theatre very often. I knew they’d done one or two iconic productions for wider family audiences. They’d done Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and they’d done Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin and they’d done these wonderful shows for the whole family for two seasons over four years. They were looking for another show to do and they’d chosen War Horse. So I said,

‘Why? Because no one’s read the book much.’

They said, ‘Well, we’ve been looking for a story with an animal hero at its heart, because we want to do it with puppets.’
It was at that moment that my heart sank. That’s why I say I felt disbelief because I didn’t really believe a show could be made of this story about the First World War with puppets: I couldn’t quite see how anyone could take that seriously. I was thinking of a pantomime horse, which I know is silly but that’s what I was thinking.

They said, ‘No, you must come meet these guys, Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa, and see their work.’

So I went and I saw this life-size giraffe walking across the studio floor with three puppeteers inside and I simply couldn’t believe it. You could see the puppeteers right through it. It was like a skeleton thing walking along, yet you believed totally that there was life in this creature. It was unbelievably moving, I felt tears coming to my eyes. I don’t even feel like that when I see a real giraffe and yet this manifestation of a giraffe, this giraffe spirit, was so touching that I thought that maybe if they could do it with a giraffe, they could do it with a horse too. So my disbelief turned into amazement.
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HK: How involved were you in the process while the show was being put together?

MM: Have you seen the play yet?

HK: I haven’t.

TF: I have.

MM: Did you like it?

TF: Loved it!

MM: Then I had everything to do with it!

We laugh.

MM: All my own work. If you had said the opposite…

I think the truth is that I had very little to do with it. They were really kind, but I’m not a dramatist and they knew this: I am a story-maker. They used the story and they were kind enough to send me the scripts, to bring me along to rehearsals and I’d say what I thought and sometimes they paid attention and sometimes they didn’t. I’ve done enough work now with stage companies, theatre companies and screen people to know that that’s what happens. They take a story and whether you like it or not, once they’ve taken it, once you’ve actually given it to them – once you’ve been paid to give it to them – they are entitled to do with it what they like. The risk you take when you hand your story over is that they will mess it up, and to avoid that it seems to me that you must do your research. So you go to see what the director does, what the writer does and then you make up your mind if they can do it. Don’t expect it to be a simple representation of your story, though, because it won’t be like that. With a genius thing like this, they’ve shone a completely new light on the story and taken it to dimensions I never could have even conceived. When they don’t do it and it turns out to be the opposite, it’s very disappointing. You make mistakes, but in this particular case I got lucky. The right people, Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott, the two directors, who are both of them unbelievably extraordinary theatrical geniuses, came together. How rare is that? Two directors who come together and share their genius. They created the play. They got Rae Smith to do the design, they got John Tams and Adrian Sutton to do the music and before I knew it, there were all these brilliant people – the best in British theatre – coming together to make this show.

When I first saw it I was hugely disappointed because it was so complicated to coordinate and make the whole thing because nothing has ever been done like it. It juddered and there were moments when it wasn’t working and it was too long, my thought was, ‘This is going to last a week if you’re lucky’. I was very disappointed but then the National Theatre and those two wonderful directors, they got together and they shook it into shape in a week and then on press night I came and saw it again. It was a completely extraordinary show and I turned around and saw all these fancy, hugely prestigious people from theatre and literature in floods of tears. It was just utterly extraordinary! It cuts through intellect to the heart and that’s what they’ve achieved.

I’ve seen it maybe forty or fifty times now, I’ve lost count. I’ve seen it in Australia and I’ve seen it in America and Canada and I’m going to see it in Berlin tomorrow. That’s the most amazing thing – this has never happened before. They haven’t shown a play in Germany about the First World War since it happened because it is something so difficult for them to engage with, and the National Theatre have never done this before either, so there are a lot of firsts happening and it’s very daring, and that’s what’s so wonderful about this. It’s a risk to put puppets on stage in front of people and ask them to take it seriously: for them to do that, it’s got to be so good. And then to take it to Berlin where the memories echo onto the Second World War, a consequence of the First World War, and it is still massively in their conciousness, where they’ll be playing it in a theatre where the Kaiser sat, and later where Hitler sat….Hitler apparently sat in the balcony which looks down on the stage where Joey trots out as this symbol of peace, reconciliation and suffering, one hundred years later. How wonderful is that?
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HK: How did seeing the film for the first time compare to seeing the play?

MM: It was different. The story has taken many shapes. It has been a radio play, it was already a play and we were already doing concerts. Suddenly it was a film and the difference really is the medium. A film tells you just about everything, it leaves you no room for manouvering in terms of your leave of imagination. I’ve been used to being left room for this. I think with the puppets, for instance, it is so much up to the audience to invest in them. They understand the situation and that’s why kids can sit here and watch a horse die because there is no blood, no flesh, you are always imagining it. It’s the same thing when it’s on the page, it is left to the reader. It’s why the thing works so wonderfully well. A book is a useless thing without a reader. That’s when the magic happens: where the story meets the reader and where the author meets the reader. In the play again it needs the meeting of imagination to work, even though it’s stimulating imagination in a different way. With the film it’s on a plate, it’s the whole thing: here’s how it was in Devon in 1914, here’s what the First World War looked like, here is what the horse looked like. Parts of it were wonderful. I think the war scenes were extraordinary, especially the charge across no man’s land. It was less successful where the director understood the story less well. The life of a working farm in 1914 Devon was portrayed in a way that was idealistic. I actually live in the place so I know that life was hard, brutish and muddy. They suffered a lot from damp houses and cold and that didn’t come across in the film. It all looked too tidy and the same thing happened when it came to the French countryside. So there were moments when I thought that could have been a great deal better. I am more critical of the film than I am of the play.

I do have criticisms of the play, too, which I won’t go into now. I even have criticisms of the book. If you’ve read the book you’ll know that is an attempt to look at the universal suffering from all sides. That’s the whole point of using the horse to tell the story. You see it from the British side, the French side and the German side. The British side, I think, is done quite well because I live in the place where the horse comes from and I’m soaked in its whole atmosphere and the history. The French side is quite good because I speak French, it is my second country. I go there, I know the place and I know how France was affected by the First World War. I think when I read my book, the German side is not so well written, partly because I’m more distant from the experience and the culture and the language, from what it is to be German and how it was for them. If I have a major criticism of the book it’s that the German character isn’t as strong as the French or British characters.

The play doesn’t do the whole thing. If you’ve read the book you’ll know that it starts and ends with a sale, it’s one of the things I treasure about the book. Well they don’t do that in the play because they thought, rightly, that dramatically it would be too obvious at the end and almost a repeat work on stage. They were right. I don’t complain about it but when I sit here sometimes I think it would have been nice to have that.
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TF: Do you prefer a play when it is more simplistic and spends more time on the story?

MM: I like the intimacy of smaller, less expensive plays. This is glorious and wonderful and I get to go to wonderful places and there’s a terrific buzz about it all and all that’s lovely but the buzz can sometimes interfere with the truth behind the drama. The great danger of a production like this (though it doesn’t happen in this particular production) is that the stage effects can be so mesmerisingly wonderful that you forget what the play is about. There are plenty of plays on the West End where the stage effects are just amazing and the story gets lost. The quality of the story and the music cannot be sustained if all you’re doing is ‘ahhing’ and wondering at how amazing it all is. It’s not what theatre should be. It’s supposed to be as honest as possible, as honest as a book.
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Photographs from the day are by Tal Fox. To hear an audio version of the interview, check out Tal’s blog here.

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