Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

War Horse: Stage vs. Page

9781405226660This year I saw War Horse on stage at the New London Theatre. It went immediately to the top of the list of best plays I’d ever seen. I would encourage anyone to go and see it, it is a wonderful example of ensemble work.

I was so fascinated by it that I picked up the original novel by Michael Morpurgo.

In reading the novel I was immediately struck by how different it is from the play. The ending in particular is very different. As a long-standing fan of literary adaptations, I’m often quick to point out where I think the adaptation fails or is outdone by its literary source. That is not the case here. Although a little surprised – I had no idea it would be any different to the play – I understood the reasons behind each change. I don’t think the play would have been as powerful if it had been translated verbatim from the book and vice versa.

Morpurgo is a children’s writer, but there is a lack of sentimentality in his books. He doesn’t pander to children, he doesn’t sugar-coat things. But he is by no means a brutal writer. War Horse is told from the point-of-view of Joey the horse, from his time as a foal, meeting Albert and his experience during the war. At its heart, War Horse is a story about that particular kind of love between a child and an animal. It is also a look at war through the eyes of a horse who enters the conflict on the English side and spends time among the Germans and finds both kindness and brutality on both sides. The book made me cry several times – there are moments that are painfully poignant and I would defy you to read this book without shedding a single tear.

The play, a collaboration between the National Theatre and Handspring Puppet Company,  is equally moving. It is so visually striking – from its use of props, screens and projections, bare stage and, of course, those astonishing puppets.

It simplifies the story by combining several characters and changing the ending. Joey does not talk in the play, but we follow him on his journey through the war and he becomes the perfect neutral witness to the madness of the men about him. This streamlines the story and wrings every moment of emotional truth out of it – but again, you cannot claim that it is sentimental in the least. It is matter-of-fact and calmly told, but it is deeply affecting despite its stiff upper lip. Despite not talking, it is a testament to Handspring and the puppeteers that we understand Joey, we are able to see the world through his eyes. The Horse’s Mouth: Staging Morpurgo’s War Horse by Melvyn Millar talks about al the work that went into creating a believable horse on stage and that work truly paid off.

I was fascinated by the process – the puppets are such an integral part of the piece that I wondered at what point they entered the rehearsal. This was why I reached for The Horse’s Mouth. It’s a succinct account of the rehearsal process at the National Studio, talking you through the challenges faced by adapting the piece. What shone through was the passion the team had for the play. War Horse is an exceptional piece of theatre, that I truly loved, so I was really happy to read that everyone involved loved the play with equal intensity.

Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris directed the piece together; Rae Smith, the designer, was involved extremely early on in the process; John Tams was brought in to work on the music, which was used to incredible effect. Nick Stafford, who scripted the play, faced constant rewrites as the play was work-shopped, he was constantly responding to the rehearsals. The puppeteers, Handspring, had a hand in scripting the non-verbal moments – when Joey and Topthorn meet for the first time, for example. The actors were kept constantly on their toes. War Horse is a tribute to the hard work of this incredible ensemble:

And the linking together of these people is the key to the success or failure of War Horse: her [Marianne Elliot] clear astute choices, Morris’ eager experiments, Kohler and Jones’ limit-pushing intricate designs and Smith’s sweeping dynamics, mixed in with a little technique and detail from Sedgwick, Shutt, Constable and the rest of us.

War Horse is also being made into a film by Steven Spielberg, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I’m really excited to see this because I’m curious to see real horses take on the role. The puppets are so incredible and breath-taking that I can’t help but feel the film won’t have the same magic – but I hope it will have a different magic.

Michael Morpurgo reflects on the progress of his story:

I just find it enormously moving that something that started down in this little place in Devon 20-odd years ago, has attracted all these fresh minds to it, and they’re creating something new, different, that tells, to a large extent, the same story, but in a different way.

War Horse by Michael Morpugo: Egmont Books Ltd, 2006. ISBN-10:1405226668. 192pp.

The Horse’s Mouth: Staging Morpurgo’s War Horse by Mervyn Millar: Oberon Books Ltd, 2007. ISBN-10:1840027657. 128pp.

6 comments on “War Horse: Stage vs. Page

  1. annebrooke
    November 7, 2011

    Sounds amazing, Nikki! I’m very much for grown-up theatre using puppets – it can be extremely powerful if properly done.

    🙂

    Anne
    xxx

  2. Lisa Glass
    November 7, 2011

    Wonderful review, Nikki. I’ve heard so much about War Horse but never even read the book, as I had a sense it would be a real tearjerker. Intrigued by the idea of a puppet horse in a theatre production. Would love to see that.

  3. Hilary
    November 7, 2011

    I agree – terrific review! I’ve been shying away for years from going to see this, as I don’t think I could bear it emotionally – even though I think the experieince must be absolutely remarkable. Reinforced in not going by seeing Michael Morpurgo’s other WW1 work ‘Private Peaceful’ in performance, and ending up in pieces … However, after reading your review, perhaps I can approach it by reading the book first. Certainly, the attractions of the puppetry and the music (John Tams is a great draw for me) are great. I must just stock up on kleenex and summon up the courage.

  4. Jackie
    November 8, 2011

    Like the others, I think I might be too emotionally affected by reading this, though it sounds like a really unique take on a serious subject. The play must be remarkable, not to mention really hard work for the performers & those who put it together.
    Thanks for the excellent review of an unusual book & the comparision to the play. Something really different for VL.

  5. RosyB
    November 9, 2011

    I always wanted to see this but I am far away and haven’t been able to. But puppetry – done well – can be magical and I can imagine that it would lend itself perfectly to this. Of course it can be awful too, but Shock-Headed Peter etc proved what could be done and it’s great to see more theatre shows using puppetry in an imaginative way.

  6. niks87
    November 11, 2011

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone.

    Anne, the use of puppets can be so powerful. Especially given the content of this play in particular – essentially they were recreating a time when horses were just puppets, a means to an end.

    Lisa and Hilary, yes, very tear-jerking! What’s funny though is that I cried in completely different places in the book to when I was watching the play. It’s interesting to compare what’s an emotional moment visually and what’s emotional on the page. But please see it, it’s worth the emotional wringer! I can’t think of anything I’ve seen recently that has so powerfully used so many mediums to such incredible effect. It’s one of those magical productions that only come along every few years when everything just comes together and works perfectly. Hilary, you saw Private Peaceful? How was it, apart from tear-jerking? I really want to see that!

    Jackie, thank you. It is very unusual, I’ve certainly never heard of viewing the war through a horse’s eyes before. But Morpurgo is right, Joey makes the perfect neutral observer because a horse is only really concerned by who is kind to him or who isn’t.

    Rosy, there are some truly awful moments in the play. I sat there, horrified, crying and the little voice in my head said “They’re only PUPPETS.” But you can know that and still it really gets you. I have no idea why, I think that’s why I loved it!

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This entry was posted on November 7, 2011 by in Entries by Nikki and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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