Interview: director Tom Morris on bringing Michael Morpurgo's War Horse to the stage

Interview: director Tom Morris on bringing Michael Morpurgo's War Horse to the stage

Photo: Ellie Kurttz

The National Theatre collaborated with South Africa’s Handspring Puppets to bring the show to life

When Tom Morris describes War Horse as ‘a business and commercial phenomenon’, he’s not being boastful – just mindful of the show’s humble beginnings. ‘It’s important to remember,’ he says, ‘that when we started out, we only thought it was an experiment.’ Crucially, that experiment took place without anybody standing in the side-lines tapping their watch expectantly.

Back in 2007, when Morris (younger brother of comedy writer, Chris) was associate director at the National Theatre, he was presented with a task: find stories that will appeal to both adults and older children. Meanwhile, having discovered the innovative work of South Africa’s Handspring Puppets, he was casting around for a project in which to use them.

In the midst of this, Morris was introduced to Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel, War Horse, and all three elements came together in perfect alchemy. When Morris presented his idea to National Theatre artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, he made the wise decision to give War Horse free rein. ‘Nick told us to play around with ideas and see if anything came of it, with no expectation that it was even going to turn into a show,’ recalls Morris. ‘So we went into the studio for a week with a writer, a few story ideas, a few actors and some bits of cardboard.’

It was a strategy that paid dividends, and the production went on to play to over four million people worldwide, winning numerous awards along the way. ‘That absolutely could not have been achieved if we’d been told “right, off you go, here’s your budget and that’s the start date”,’ he says. ‘Instead, we spent 18 months thinking about it and playing around with ideas before we knew we were definitely going to stage it. And even then, it was another year before it was finished.’

Set during World War I, War Horse centres on the deep friendship between a teenage boy, Albert, and his horse, Joey. When Joey is sent away to the frontline, Albert tries to find him in amongst the horrors of the trenches. Morpurgo’s more recent titles have won him an army of loyal readers. Fortunately for Morris, War Horse was one of his lesser-known early works. ‘When we started out, Michael was known as the guy who wrote Private Peaceful or Kensuke’s Kingdom; he wasn’t known as the guy who wrote War Horse. It wasn’t a big-selling book for him. If it had been a huge title, it would have been harder to adapt it. But Michael is a brilliant and generous collaborator, and was there whenever we needed him.’

One of the defining characteristics of the stage adaptation is Handspring’s incredible horse puppets, which Morris calls ‘a landmark in puppetry’. But puppets alone can’t buy the kind of audience admiration War Horse enjoys. ‘The puppets are what makes the show unique, but they’re not the only thing that makes people want to see War Horse,’ says Morris. ‘It’s the heart of Michael Morpurgo’s story that people connect to. The kind of comfort humans sometimes find in the company of animals, and the love that holds the boy and horse together. The audience makes a big investment in the possibility they might find each other in the second half. If that doesn’t work, then no amount of puppetry will rescue the show. You absolutely need both.’

War Horse, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Wed 22 Jan–Sat 15 Feb.

National Theatre Live: War Horse trailer

War Horse

  • Directed by: Toby Sedgwick
  • Written by: Michael Morpurgo (book)

The National Theatre's staging of Michael Morpurgo's novel about a farm horse called Joey caught up in the horrors of WWI.