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Wild ride

British children's author couldn't have predicted the runaway stage success of his First World War book

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Michael Morpurgo thought he had seen it all after War Horse, his tepidly received children's novel, was rediscovered as a London stage spectacle, a Tony Award-winning touring behemoth and a Steven Spielberg film epic.

It's been quite a ride for Morpurgo -- Britain's former Children's Laureate -- but for him, the most inconceivable development is that his story about our common longing for peace would be staged concurrently in the wartime capitals of London and Berlin, just as the world marks 100 years since the outbreak of the Great War.

"I think it's maybe the best thing that has happened," Morpurgo says over the telephone from his farm cottage in the village of Iddesleigh in deepest Devonshire. "It's one of the things you thought couldn't happen."

War Horse, which will make its Winnipeg debut Wednesday at the Centennial Concert Hall, follows a young Englishman and his beloved horse Joey to the bloody battlefields of France in 1914. A character puts his mission plainly -- "We've come here to kill Germans" -- so a run in one-time enemy territory seemed unlikely, but the story's universal appeal moved German audiences as much those in the U.K.

Morpurgo, 70, was there opening night to see his renamed work -- Gef§hrten, which means comrades -- in Theater des Westens, the only Berlin theatre that survived Allied bombing in the Second World War. To take his futility-of-war message to a venue that once hosted Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler was the capper to the War Horse charge across world stages.

"It made me feel like the book was worth writing," says Morpurgo, who has penned about 120 other titles.

Although it is now his most famous book, it didn't start out that way in 1982; annual sales never topped 1,500 copies and the work won no major prizes.

One person who did read it was the mother of English theatre director Tom Morris. She urged her son to read War Horse at a time in 2003 when the not-for-profit National Theatre had an open 50-performance slot on its 1,400-seat Olivier stage.

There was an immediate general skepticism to a drama built around a talking horse.

"The book is all told through the voice of Joey," says War Horse executive producer Chris Harper from his London office. "We all said, there is no way a horse can speak. That would be the most ridiculous thing to do."

The creative team's groundbreaking idea was to bring Joey and all the equines to life as puppets.

Absurd, thought Morpurgo.

South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company was hired to develop what turned out to be unique, life-size puppets -- made of soaked, bent and stained cane -- that require three puppeteers to control their movements.

"I realized there was something special the first time I saw a prototype of the horse," says Harper, who has been part of the production team from the start. "It was literally made of bits of cardboard, tape and string, but something magical happened. The puppetry is so theatrical. It invites an audience to use their imagination. It allows you to join in the journey, invest in the belief these are real horses."

After its first overlong, uninspiring preview in 2007, the prospects appeared completely bleak for War Horse to run very far. Morpurgo, a former teacher, thought they'd forgotten to tell the story. By opening night, the directors, Morris and Marianne Elliott, transformed a trimmed-down War Horse into a crowd-pleasing evening of show-stopping puppet artistry that animates a moving account of the unbreakable bond between a boy and his horse.

War Horse ran for a season at the National before it transferred in 2009 to the West End, where it has been stabled ever since. There are five productions onstage around the world, including the North American tour that will roll into Winnipeg this week in 11 semi-trailers full of puppets and props.

Its eventual destination is Japan, while other War Horse productions are headed for China in September and South Africa in October.

Its total global audience stands at 5.5 million people and the profits from its 2011 Broadway run paid for the National's new theatre. It has been a win-win proposition for both sides.

"They took the spirit of the book and made it into something quite unforgettable, a great theatrical event," says Morpurgo. "It's transformed the fortunes of the book. In the first years it was translated into three languages. It's now in 47 languages."

Morpurgo was especially delighted that the play found an audience in the United States, where the population has little connection to the First World War. He discovered that the families of the thousands of American soldiers in combat embraced the antiwar sentiment and the grief that comes to all sides.

"It's really not about the First World War," Morpurgo says. "It's about all wars. It's about the suffering and universal pity of war. That's what that horse is doing when it rears up on the (barbed) wire and screams. It's the (Edvard) Munch scream of humanity raging against this kind of suffering and conflict. I think they got it."

On the anniversary of the war to end all wars, Morpurgo despairs at humanity's continued folly.

"I'm pretty sad at how we haven't learned any lessons," he says. "We have slid into two wars recently, all of which killed a great deal of people. I find it shameful, because we are supposed to be an educated people."

kevin.prokosh@freepress. mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2014 G1

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