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The West End run of National Theatre’s War Horse closed on 12th March this year. At this point 2.7 million people had seen it in London, and over 7 million worldwide.

War Horse comes to Oxford

Sam Bennett attends the War Horse UK tour’s launch at New London Theatre, to hear Michael Morpurgo speak and to see how National Theatre have transferred his 1982 novel to stage
In September 2017 a second UK tour of the Tony Award-winning show, which includes a run at Oxford’s New Theatre, will begin.

“I hate Oxford,” he states. “I tried to go to university there and got turned down by a horrible place called Christ Church. I loathe it, absolutely loathe it – and you can print that.”

The West End run of National Theatre’s War Horse closed on 12th March this year. At this point 2.7 million people had seen it in London, and over 7 million worldwide.

 

In September 2017 a second UK tour of the Tony Award-winning show, which includes a run at Oxford’s New Theatre, will begin.

Prior to my seeing the show, as part of the tour’s launch at New London Theatre, it was said to me by others who had seen it that, when you watch it, after a while you forget the horses are puppets and you see past the humans controlling the head, heart and hind of Joey and Topthorn. Thus I consciously kept myself aware of the puppeteers on stage throughout the show, so am unable to say the same.

War Horse comes to the New Theatre, Oxford on 13th December 2017, and will stay there until 6th January 2018.

 

But it doesn’t matter either way, otherwise National Theatre would attempt to disguise the fact the horses are puppets. “You can see it’s a puppet,” Michael Morpurgo tells a group huddled around him at the launch of the second UK tour. “You can see people’s legs working inside it. Nothing is hidden.”

And my not becoming blind to the puppetry doesn’t mean I appreciate the talent of the puppeteers any less. The transformation of Joey from a foal to a fully grown horse, for example, is remarkably swift.

“When you first see Joey he is a foal,” Morpurgo says. “There is a moment when he turns from a three month old to a fully grown horse. And it is unbelievable. It will completely blow you away.”

Morpurgo initially thought Joey would appear in the theatre as a pantomime horse, far from what Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones from Handspring Puppet Company have actually created for the show. “Who’s ever seen a horse on stage before that wasn’t a pantomime horse?” he says. “The point about this show is that it’s a massive risk. No one has ever put puppets on stage like this before.”

It’s not just the horses that puppetry is applied to. Crows are steered through the air creating the same level of sinister you get watching them in film and a farmyard goose actually displays a personality and character traits.

Constantly being aware of the puppetry also doesn’t mean you can’t be moved by National Theatre’s offering. “It’s a really serious, deep, dark story,” Morpurgo points out. “There are times where if you’re with an 8 year old child you’ll want to cover their eyes.”

There are indeed harrowing visuals. What the production does is leave horses that have died on stage as carcasses for a long time, you’ll see a horse perish in one scene to remain in the same spot during the next, even if this scene is taking place in another setting all together; it’s a reminder that death is forever and a constant throughout war.

Morpurgo read from the War Horse novel at the launch, reading to groups being something he is well practiced in. Once upon a time, he was a year six teacher where it was custom to read to the class at the end of the day. He has a skill for it that he attributes to his own experience of being read to. “My mum read me stories,” he recalls. “She was an actor and read beautifully. She would read the writers she loved and passed the love onto me through her voice.”

In regards to his year sixes, he says if he picked the book well and did what his mother did, they would listen to him.

He tells of how one day he ran out of stories he really loved. “I started one that I knew was a bit wobbly, I saw the look on their faces, and I knew it wasn’t working.

“My wife said: ‘you’re quite good at telling lies. Go in and make up a story.’ I did that and it worked. I told a soap, and it went on all week. On the Friday, the head teacher came in and sat at the back. (She had heard about Mr Morpurgo’s stories). She came up to me afterwards and said ‘Michael, that was wonderful, I want you to write it out and give it to me on Monday morning.’

The head teacher had a cousin who worked at Macmillan, where the author’s story ended up. “They wrote me a letter, I’ve got it in a file,” he recalls. “They had read my story and wanted me to write five more, for which they would pay me £75.”
And so began a distinguished career as a writer, which has led to adaptations of other books he’s written. “Would you ever draw the line?” I ask. “Would you ever say ‘no you can’t do that with one of my books’ to someone?”

He has done.

“I draw the line if the theatre company is no good,” he says. “I really do research it carefully or you can get yourself into awful bother. But I’m really lucky because I would say at least three quarters of particularly theatre things have been either interesting or brilliant.

“Last year,” he says. “Two shows came up. One of them really worried me because it was the Chichester Festival Youth Theatre. Like a lot of writers I’ve had lots of youth productions of my work put on. Some were completely wonderful but others were really difficult to sit through because they were badly acted and directed.

“So I go down to Chichester. It’s a promenade production of Running Wild in a forest outside Chichester. There were 60 kids from all around Sussex and they did an extraordinary show. I was bowled over by the commitment of the actors. I stayed another night and went again.”

War Horse comes to the New Theatre, Oxford on 13th December 2017, and will stay there until 6th January 2018.

Morpurgo expressed his opinion on the city.

“I hate Oxford,” he states. “I tried to go to university there and got turned down by a horrible place called Christ Church. I loathe it, absolutely loathe it – and you can print that.”

But perhaps we might see him there. “I go on stage from time to time,” he reveals. “I put on a costume and become part of the crowd – you wouldn’t recognise me. I love to feel part of it.”

Tickets can be purchased from the New Theatre box office on George Street, by ringing 0844 871 3020 or by visiting atgtickets.com/oxford (phone and internet bookings subject to booking/transaction fee. Calls are charged at 7p per minute, plus your phone company's access charge).

For bookings of 10 or more, or for Equal Access bookings, please call the in-house team on 0844 871 3040.

 

- Sam Bennett

 

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