We didn’t know what to expect upon entering the Panasonic theatre on
Yonge Street. The focal point on the backlit stage was a setting that looked like it had been beamed up star trek style from the study of an English country manor and dropped into this dark impersonal urban setting. Two enormous caramel punched-leather armchairs flanked a small round coffee table upon which stood a bowlful of tangerines. A tall adjustable floor lamp was arranged over one the chairs pooling it’s disc if light onto the armchair back.
Cue Michael Morpurgo accompanied by his buddy/chatmeister John Tams – best known for his musical contributions to and acting role in the “Sean Bean” series – who strolled on stage playing a rousing but haunting folk war-song on his harmonica. He (John Tams) draped his lithe frame into one of the enormous chairs and laconically crossed his legs. By contrast Michael Morpurgo limped stiffly across the stage, looking every inch the stereotypical writer, carrying a traditional satchel and sporting a burnt orange blazer. He gingerly lowered himself into the spotlight chair, hitched his trouser legs up at the knees, crossed his ankles and began to read from his book.
His clear British teacher’s voice boomed out authoritatively to the background strains of John Tams’ harmonica. At the point when Michael Morpurgo stopped reading, John broadened out the tune to a full blown performance and then broke into a vocal rendition of the same song, ending with the announcement “Ladies, Gentleman and Children, I give you Michael Morpurgo”
Some introductory ramblings followed with an explanation of the format of the evening which was to consist of anecdotal answers to questions from the audience. John Tams aside from being a buddy wrote the music for the play and movie and so was also open to questions.
In all an unusual and pleasantly entertaining couple of hours listening to the writer explain the background to why his story took over 25 years to come to the stage, how it came about and detailing his general writing process by way of answers to specific questions regarding the book and his career to date.
War Horse written more than 25 years ago at a time when Michael Morpurgo was better known as having started up the charity “Farms for City Children” with his wife in Devon than a children’s author. The book has been translated into 35 languages and shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and the story was inspired by an old photograph he saw in his local village school in Iddlesleigh. It is written entirely from a horse’s point of view.
It seems as is often the case, that the evolution of War Horse the book into Warhorse the Stage play occurred following a series of unforeseen coincidences:
Soon after joining the NT in 2004 Tom Morris accompanied by the NT’s executive director Nick Starr, travelled to Cape Town to watch “Handspring Puppets’ ” latest touring production Tall Horse which featured 80 puppets, including several antelope and a 13ft-high giraffe. Apparently Morris’ Mother stepped in at that point having read War Horse and believing it to be a perfect project for the life size Handspring puppets. As soon as Morris read the book he knew there was a story for both Handspring and the National to tell. He approached Kohler of Handspring and the result can be seen on the Toronto stage in February 2012.
So here is Michael Morpurgo in 2011 whipping up a storm. The book at the same time a sensational west end show and a Steven Speilberg. The man doesn’t know whether he is coming or going: New York in the morning, London tomorrow for a stage opening and film premiere. A lot for an ex-teacher and prolific writer of children’s books who for the last 30 years has been making a decent living, churning out a specific genre of children’s adventure books at a rate of knots.
See Warhorse opening at the cinemas on Xmas day in Toronto and Mirvish.com for information on the opening of the Toronto theatre production.
Over and Out