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Brief Encounter with ... Michael Morpurgo

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Bestselling children's author Michael Morpurgo will soon have two adaptations of his novels running in the West End concurrently; Private Peaceful comes to the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 18 to 29 September 2012, while the multi award-winning War Horse continues its sell-out run at the New London Theatre.

Private Peaceful, which is adapted and directed by Simon Reade, tells the heart-wrenching story of Tommo, a young First World War soldier awaiting the firing squad at dawn. (Don't miss our Outing on 25 September 2012 which features a post-show Q&A with Reade and the show's star - click here for info.)

How does it feel to bring Private Peaceful to the West End?
Well it’s been to Soho Theatre and it was also on at Trafalgar Studios but this is its first opportunity in a major West End theatre, which is very exciting. It’s a huge venue, but also such an intimate space and so well designed that I’m sure it’ll suit it very well.

Are you having to change it to accommodate the space?
Simon Reade, myself and the two actors (Paul Chequer and Mark Quartley, who rotate in the central role), are in the process of re-jigging it slightly for this reason. The major factor is that we have to make it into two halves with an interval, and normally as a one-man show it just plays straight through. But besides this the re-jiggings are minor.

With War Horse continuing at the New London, you’re going to have two plays in the West End concurrently
Well you have to pinch yourself really. It’s strange, and it’s also rather wonderful that they’re so, so different. War Horse is a huge show in terms of the puppetry, the lighting, the Rae Smith design and the music - the whole thing is wonderfully worked and woven together and it’s epic in its proportions. And you go from that to literally one man on a stage in Private Peaceful. It’s really two sides of theatre; one is storytelling theatre and one is an elaboration of a story in the most extraordinary way. But both of them keep to the heart and the spirit of the story.

And both deal with the subject of war
Children often ask me when I go to festivals ‘why are your stories so much about war and why are they so sad?’. And you just have to tell them that you write about what you care about. I was a war baby, I was born in 1943 so my first impressions of the world around me were of a world that had been in trauma, of adults who were still grieving. I lost an uncle in World War One and that uncle was a photo on the mantelpiece. My mum used to be really upset on his birthday and on November 11 so to some extent those first and early impressions stay with you. And the older you get you see how conflict seems to be almost an endemic human condition, we simply haven’t moved away from it despite the horrors of World War One and World War Two. It horrifies me, it saddens me.

Paul Chequer in Private Peaceful. Photo credit: Pau Ros
There's clearly something about the first conflict that particularly fascinates you
Ted Hughes was right when he called World War One a huge, senseless war. We know that Wilfred Owen was right when he talked about the futility of it and yet we return to it almost like a knee-jerk and that saddens me, so I guess that’s why I write about it and maybe they are the stories I feel most deeply. Possibly that’s why they’ve been picked up by dramatists and filmmakers.

Do you worry that future generations will forget about these wars?
I do, and it seems to me to be more and more important to speak it out because if we’re not careful it recedes into what people think is an antique history where it isn’t relevant any more. I do think it’s something we have to keep an eye on, and the wonderful thing about Europe in my lifetime, in Western Europe at any rate, is that we haven’t gone to war again. And one of the things I think when I’m walking down the streets in London is that the whole world has come here now, not just for the Olympics. London is full of people from all over the world. I can’t envisage a situation where people think it’s a really good idea to fight each other. And maybe a play about World War One makes a little contribution to that.

Private Peaceful also helped bring the public’s attention to the issue of the soldiers who were executed in the First World War
I’ve no doubt it made a contribution when the whole question of what we should do about those soldiers executed for cowardice or desertion was being debated. Those trials were simply not justice, and those men were wrongly called unworthy. Their families were campaigning for a long time to get them pardoned, and I’m not suggesting it’s the play that did it but I don’t think it hurt; the play came out at a certain time and reinforced these people as men, not as simply executed soldiers who were worthless. And the Government did finally turn round and change their minds. I’m not saying it did everything but the play certainly added to that pressure, it added to the awareness and I do think that the arts can do that.

How were you first made aware of the issue?
I only discovered it really by chance in a museum in Ypres in Belgium. The man who runs it is one of the world’s authorities on the trials of these soilders. And I saw one of the exhibits which was a letter from the army to a mother, I think it was in Salford, which said ‘we regret to inform you that your son was shot at dawn’, dated 1916. There was also an envelope with the address and you could see the rip in the envelope and I thought then how dreadful it must have been for the mother to receive that news. That’s what made me write the book and then I thought ‘well that’s one, how many other cases were there?’

He then showed me the records he had and I think there were just over 300 soldiers shot - roughly 3000 were condemned to death and 300 of those were shot. And when you read the trials, some of them didn’t last more than 20 minutes so. Twenty minutes for a man’s life. And you see perfectly well through the nature of the conversation that they’d already made up their mind before. It was barbaric. Many of these soldiers had already been in hospital with shell-shock.

There seems to be a lot of nostalgia for that period currently, the ‘Downton Abbey’ effect
That’s precisely why something like Private Peaceful, and the dark side of War Horse, is so important. We cannot cover it over with soft light and nostalgia, it was not like that, it was the most dreadful nightmare. It was a Holocaust and to look back and think they were the good old days is simply wrong. If I go to the graveyard in my little village in Devon and look at the age people died, 40 or 50 was a decent age for them and they were crippled very often by arthritis, their houses were damp. Yes it was very settled, and everyone knew their place, there’s no doubt about that. But it was not the good life - we have the good life now. We all have hot baths, can you imagine that?

Finally, if you choreographed the Olympics Opening Ceremony, what would you include?
I do feel very strongly that one thing this country has done which people don't shout about is our tradition of telling stories for young people. Two or three hundred years we’ve been telling iconic stories to young people and writing them. I think we don’t talk about this very much and I'd love to include a parade of everything from Lewis Carroll up to JK Rowling. These stories and the characters that have been created - whether it's Peter Rabbit or Paddington Bear - have spread around the globe. I'd put them centre stage.

NB: This interview was recorded shortly before the Opening Ceremony, which did feature JK Rowling and a tribute to children's literature

Don't miss our Outing to Private Peaceful on 25 September 2012 which features a post-show Q&A with Reade and the show's star - click here for info and to book. A big screen version is due to be released next month.


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