I once heard the novelist Michael Morpurgo say, ‘The adults I find most interesting are the ones who know that the child inside them is really their soul.’ I’ve always admired his writing. He’s a consummate storyteller who tackles big themes with a luminous simplicity and humanity that seem to work just as well for me as they do for the children they’re primarily intended for.
Yesterday evening I finally saw the stage production of War Horse. It was screened at my local cinema, live from the National Theatre in London. The performance, with its life-sized horse puppets, was mesmerising, the story finely balanced and deeply moving. Then there was the fact of watching actors in real time on a cinema screen, complete with the close ups and other camera angles that one would never see in the theatre. Cinema screenings of live stage performances are a wonderful development for those of us who live out of London and would struggle to afford West End prices; although there is a different price in that one inevitably loses a little of the immediacy and physicality of the performance. It was an extraordinary experience, nevertheless.
Michael Morpurgo was interviewed during the interval. He spoke about the universal appeal of the show which is now travelling the world. He believed it worked on three levels, he said. The story of a boy and his horse is something that can be understood by everyone everywhere. Then there is the story that depicts the horrors of war. And at the deepest level, there’s the story of reconciliation and the peace that we all long for. The book itself was not a success, he explained. It took a collaboration with the National Theatre and Handspring, the remarkable South African puppet-makers and puppeteers, to bring his story to the audience of now over a million people who have made it their own.
I’m glad to have finally seen the show, because in autumn 2010 I wrote this: I seldom watch breakfast TV but I was staying in a hotel on Wednesday night, so yesterday morning I did. One of the guests was the former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo. The stage production of his story War Horse is about to go to Broadway, while Steven Spielbeg has also just finished filming it.
Animals have always been a challenge in the theatre. I remember going to see the original version of Equus at the Old Vic in the early ‘70s. Then they used large wicker horses’ heads worn by brown-clad actors. It worked. Equus was a profoundly disturbing theatrical experience.
Things have moved on. As we saw yesterday in a live studio demonstration, the horses in War Horse are whole, life-sized animals. The bodies and heads are wire armatures covered in gauze, the legs hinged sections of wood. Each horse has three attendant grooms in brown boots, breeches and waistcoat, who are really the puppeteers. One stands beside the animal as if tending to it and two more stand inside it. They reach up or down to manipulate the different parts of it with their hands.
So lifelike are the animal’s movements, so distinct its personality, that even in the brief couple of minutes the demonstration lasted I quickly forgot about the puppeteers. It was as if they had become transparent. It was a stunning example of how easily we can be persuaded to see only what someone wants us to see.
The three actor-puppeteers, we were told, were known respectively as Head, Heart and Hind; and this, I think, is the reason that this trompe l’oeil worked so beautifully. Working together, each immersed in his or her role, they conjured a living, breathing, feeling animal so real we could almost see its breath.
Head, heart and hind. It struck me that it’s sometimes helpful to think of organisations in anthropomorphic terms too. It reminds us that as well as a head, most organisations also have a heart, although they don’t always know where to find it. And they certainly have a hind. It’s what a lot of them spend a huge amount of time and effort trying to cover. The problem is that unlike in War Horse, their puppeteers so seldom seem to be working from the same script.
Having seen the show now, I would only add that it’s the strength of that script, the authenticity of feeling and universality of theme it embodies, that unifies the parts. Organisations need stories that touch us as War Horse does. The ones that pull it off are the ones that tap into some genuine possibility of a better world or as Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, put it, ‘a boon to society’. They’re rare but they exist.