After eight record-breaking years on London’s West End, performances in 11 countries and over seven million satisfied theatregoers, ‘War Horse’ finally makes its way to Liverpool.
Ahead of its 16-night run at the Liverpool Empire we caught up with playwright Nick Stafford to find out how he turned this much-loved children’s novel into an internationally acclaimed theatrical mega hit.
Interview by Lawrence Saunders
How did the idea to turn ‘War Horse’ into a play first come about?
It started about 14 years ago when the mother of a National Theatre (NT) director put her son, Tom Morris, onto Michael Morpurgo’s book ‘War Horse’.
Tom had been saying to his mum that he knew of this fantastic puppet company which did really brilliant animals and he was looking for the right project to work with them on and that’s how it started.
When did you get involved in the project?
I was a writer that the NT was interested in. I’d had plays on at the NT before and I’d actually worked with puppets before.
When they asked me to do it, I’d heard of the book but I’d never read it. When I did read it I thought it was going to be quite tricky because the story is told in the first person by the horse.
“War Horse is the biggest show that I’ve ever been involved with.”
That’s not how it turned out on stage. If I’d kept it like it was in the book it would have almost been a sort of comedy/pantomime device.
People would have thought ‘why are the horses talking in this?’ You can get away with it in a book but you can’t have a speaking horse on stage.
So we knew from the start that the horse wasn’t going to speak and it was going to be a character in the story instead. That was the first big challenge; regardless of it being a horse, turning it from a first into a third person story.
Changing it into a third person story was a big chunk of the work I did on my own before we entered a great run of workshops where everybody was involved.
These workshops included the Handspring Puppet Company, which was making puppets up as it went along. The company didn’t know what Joey (War Horse) or the other horses were going to be before we started. It didn’t know that you would be able to ride them or that they would have such a range of expressions.
Was it always the plan to have the puppets so central to the production?
Well, I remember the first horses that came in were just legs really. The next ones that came in had rucksack frames inside them and that’s how the puppeteers inside were going to carry them.
Everything was being improvised all at once. The projection, playing with shadow puppetry – we just had a ball. A bunch of adults playing for weeks on end, working out the best way to tell this story on stage.
We were constantly learning how much could be conveyed by images and by puppetry.
We’d talk about how the puppets could convey the story and ask Handspring whether we should change the script so the puppets could do more.
What did you think of the 2011 film version of ‘War Horse’, directed by Steven Spielberg?
I thought it was less exciting than the stage version and it was a disadvantage having to use a real horse.
When it’s a puppet on stage, the horse only moves when you make it. It’s like the most brilliant actor who can control every muscle in their body and only move exactly what they want to – no human can do that.
“When it’s a puppet on a stage, the horse only moves when you make it. It’s like the most brilliant actor who can control every muscle in their body.”
With a live horse you can’t really make them be as clear as you want them to be. Real horses can’t react, you can anthropomorphise them. You’re left with a horse doing horse things, which isn’t as interesting as a puppet that makes people’s jaws drop.
With a real horse, most people just go ‘oh yeah, there’s a horse’.
Your first book, ‘Armistice’, was released in 2010. How was it making the leap from writing for the stage to writing a novel?
It’s very different. I’ve been trying to [write another book] since and it’s very, very difficult. As a playwright I’ve become used to not having to describe very much apart from characters and the sort of things they’re doing to each other.
When you get to a novel you’ve got to be the scenic designer, the lighting designer, the sound designer, the director. All these things you don’t have to do when you’re a playwright. It’s been a very difficult transition.
How proud are you of ‘War Horse’ and how massive it has become?
‘War Horse’ is the biggest show, in almost every way, that I’ve ever been involved with in terms of the number of performances, how many different countries it has been to, how many are in the cast, etc.
I’ve been to so many places to see it that I wouldn’t otherwise have gone to.
I went to Antwerp a couple of years ago because I thought that is the closest it’s been to an actual First World War battlefield. It was interesting going there to see the play. They did it in Flemish as well.
There are all these people who’ve got jobs from this play as well – that’s another of the amazing things about ‘War Horse’.
‘War Horse’ is at the Liverpool Empire from 15 November until 2 December.