Into the equine mind
From novel to play, 'War Horse' comes to SF
by Richard Dodds
More people saw Stephen Spielberg's big-screen War Horse on its opening weekend than will see the stage production in an entire year. But for Michael Morpurgo, who wrote the novel that inspired the international theatrical sensation, which in turn led Spielberg to create his cinematic epic, it is the stage version that is the gift that keeps on giving. And we're not talking about bankable treasure here.
"When a film comes out, it's a bubble, it's Oscars, it's over, and then it joins the list of films you can watch in your hotel room," Morpurgo said during a fly-in from England to help herald the arrival of War Horse at the Curran Theatre. "But when I'm sitting at home in little Devon in the middle of nowhere, and I know that every night these casts are on stage, it's profoundly important to me."
The play is, on a most basic level, a boy-and-his horse story. But the great conceit of the novel is that it is told totally from the horse's point of view, with Joey narrating his life as a farm animal under the loving tutelage of young Albert, to his conscription into the British cavalry for battle on the front lines of World War I, to a brief idyll with an elderly French farmer and his granddaughter, to capture by the Germans who have him hauling artillery, to reconnection to the British forces as the war ends. No spoilers here, but Albert did promise Joey that someday they would be reunited.
The idea for War Horse came from watching one of the children at Farms for City Children, a program created by Morpurgo and his wife that brings urban children to a working farm during the summer. One boy had such a profound stutter that he refused to speak until Morpurgo observed him in a smooth conversation with a horse.
Morpurgo has written scores of novels for children and young adults, and is much lauded in his home country. But when War Horse was first published in 1982, it attracted scant notice, and sales were disappointing. He was startled when several years ago he got a call from Britain's National Theatre soliciting rights to create a stage adaptation, but dubious when he learned that the creators planned to use puppets to portray the horses.
(Photo: Courtesy Michael Morpurgo)
"I had a profound concern that the puppets would be ridiculous," he said. "We have a tradition in England called the pantomime, and one of the great pantomime characters is the horse with three or four people inside trotting around ridiculously. So I thought the whole notion of doing something similar around the subject of the First World War couldn't possibly work."
Playwright Nick Stafford and directors Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott had in fact put the horse before the cart, looking for material that would allow them to work with South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company. The notion to use War Horse for this effort was all "a lovely accident," Morpurgo said.
"I was on this radio program called Desert Island Discs, and I said something about my book War Horse. This lady listener went out and bought a copy of the book, and she happened to be the mother of one of the artistic directors of the National Theatre, and knew he had been looking for a project where the central character would be an animal so they could use Handspring Puppets."
Mom told son to read the book, and two weeks later Morpurgo got the call. There was still that matter of puppets as horses, but Morpurgo's concerns began to melt when he was shown a video of one of Handspring's creations. "They had made a life-sized giraffe with three men clearly visible inside it, and what was extraordinary was the way the puppeteers breathed life into this creature and made it utterly credible," Morpurgo said.
The play's transparent theatricality allows it to more closely tell the story from the horse's point of view than did the Spielberg movie, which was a realistic rendering of the story using real horses amid epic scenes both bucolic and brutal. Close-ups of horses' eyes widened in apprehension and occasional nuzzlings were about as far as the film could take you into the equine mind.
"Because the focus is so much on how the horse is responding to the people around him, the relationships of trust, you are to some extent still inside the horse's head because you are having to empathize enormously with the puppet," Morpurgo said. "Everything in the movie is presented for you, but with both the book and the play you have to massively suspend disbelief."
The creators of War Horse, the play, spent two years in workshops developing the project that opened at the National Theatre in 2007 and arrived on Broadway in 2011. "They had the actors working with real horses and soldiers so they could see the body language of the horses and the people around them," Morpurgo said. "That kind of deep study of how it works between man and horse was critical, and that tradition has been handed down in subsequent productions."
In addition to the continuing London, Broadway, and touring productions, War Horse is in an open-end run in Toronto, and an Australian production will open later this year. "The best news for me is that it will open in Germany next year," Morpurgo said, "which is wonderful because the point of the whole thing is reconciliation, and they're going to be doing it in Berlin in the only theater that survived the bombings."
War Horse will run Aug. 2-Sept. 9 at the Curran Theatre. Tickets at www.shnsf.com.