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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Genesis Of "War Horse"

"War Horse happened because of a happy coincidence, and because Tom Morris [who co-directed the stage version for the National Theatre] listens to his mother.
Tom was determined to do a show with Handspring Puppets, but because of its talent for lifesize animal puppets he needed something with an animal hero. He didn't find anything he liked for quite some time. But then his mother heard me on Desert Island Discs, wittering on about this book I had written. She loved it, and passed it on to Tom.
He rang me up and told me he wanted to make War Horse into a play. I was utterly thrilled. But then they told me the bad news: they wanted to use puppets. I thought to myself: there is no way that puppets can enact the seriousness of the first world war.
Tom knew I wasn't convinced, so he invited me to London to see a video of Handspring Puppets in action – a giraffe. It was worked by three men and I remember feeling so moved by this creature, how it somehow breathed life. Suddenly, I knew it would work.
When Handspring came over from South Africa, I took the puppeteers down to Devon and we spent some time on a farm, so they could get a sense of what horses are like. At rehearsals, I sat with the cast and answered their questions: about farming and Devon and the first world war. I loved being involved.
I looked at all of Nick's scripts and told them what I thought, what changes to make. They listened to some of it. I was well aware I was the amateur among the professionals, so I bit my tongue – sometimes. I remember speaking to Philip Pullman [whose series His Dark Materials was adapted by the National] and he said: "Honestly, they know what they're doing. You shouldn't get involved in theatre or film if you don't think they can do your book."
On the first night of previews, War Horse didn't work. The puppets looked great, the music and acting were good, but somehow it didn't come together. It was as if all the pieces of the jigsaw were right, but they didn't fit. And there was only a week to fix it.
I didn't go to see it again because I was so upset. I didn't sleep for three or four days. I couldn't see it lasting more than a couple of weeks. But on press night, the most magical transformation had taken place: the jigsaw puzzle fitted. Midway, I was suddenly aware of this extraordinary atmosphere around me: the audience was so engaged, in a way I had never seen before. At the end, a thousand people rose as one. Tears were streaming down faces. It was an extraordinary achievement.
War Horse belongs with me, not to me: it belongs to everyone else now. But I don't want to let it go. About once a year I put a costume on and go on stage in a crowd scene and sing the songs, just to feel part of it again.
This year is the centenary of the first world war and it is a happy thing that the play they began 10 years ago is still on today. Still, it annoys me that I didn't see the play before I wrote the book: I would have written a much better book."
Michael Morpurgo, author of the book

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