War Horse: From Page to Stage

Photo of War Horse, New London Cast, 2014 by Brinkhoff/Mögenbur

Photo of War Horse, New London Cast, 2014 by Brinkhoff/Mögenbur

How did National Theatre brought Michael Morpurgo’s book to life on stage?

What makes theatre so special is its ability to bring story to life. Unlike a film or a book, live theatre delivers a human-to-human experience and an intimacy between the actor and the audience. Theatre can entrance, suspend and open the creative imagination of the audience to the highest possibilities. One production that does just that is National Theatre’s internationally acclaimed production of War Horse.

Based on the beloved children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse tells the story of Joey, a horse purchased by the Army for service in First World War, France and the attempts of his previous owner Albert to bring him safely home. Morpurgo’s inspiration for the story came from a tarnished old oil painting of an unknown horse. On the bottom of the frame, the inscription said the horse’s name was Joey and the name of the painter was Captain James Nicholls. The date was autumn 1914.

Since its publication in 1982, Morpurgo’s story has captured the hearts of readers all over the world. But how do you go about adapting a book into a successful stage production? This was question on many fans lips in a recent interview with Michael Morpurgo via social media.

Work on the stage production of War Horse started in 2005 when Morpurgo was approached by Tom Morris from National Theatre in London. After seeing Handspring Puppet Company in action, Morris was inspired to make a play in which central character was a puppet and believed War Horse was the perfect story. The team at National Theatre set about adapting Morpurgo’s book into a innovative and unforgettable theatrical event, filled with stirring music and songs, as well as life-sized horse puppets.

Critical to the success of War Horse is the innovative stage design by Rae Smith. Morpurgo’s story moves so quickly from one scene to another that the stage design needs to reflect the speed of the audience’s imagination. Smith came up with the idea that drawings could become a form of scenic background that kept pace with the story. A page ripped from the character Nicholl’s sketchbook became a huge, 25 metre wide projection screen above the stage. From moment the audience first see Nicholls drawing on stage (when Albert rides Joey and we see Nicholls trying to capture the beauty of a horse galloping), Nicholl’s sketchbook becomes the landscape, the horizon or the battlefield behind each scene.

At the heart of the production is the astonishing life-sized horses brought to life by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. Skilled puppeteers worked for two years to bring the breathing, galloping, charging horses to life on stage. Three puppeteers work on each horse to convey the emotions of the horses. The two puppeteers working towards the back of the frame carry its weight and simulate the basic movements of a horse using levers that make the knees bend or the legs walk. The puppeteer nearest the front leads the horse, controlling its head with a rod and using levers to operate the ears. All three make their own noises including whinnying and snorting. In total, there are 22 puppets in War Horse, including one very expressive goose.

The production opened in October 2007 and was met with critical acclaim. The use of puppets from the Handspring Puppet Company won an Olivier Award, Evening Standard Theatre Award and London Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for design. By February 2010, the play transferred to Broadway in New York City and still continues to wow audiences in London’s West End.

Moving, powerful and incredibly imaginative, War Horse is a perfect example of how a great book can be adapted into a great play. If you haven’t seen it yet, we certainly recommend it!

Visit National Theatre’s website to find out more about War Horse