This Remembrance Day weekend, national treasure and former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo graced the Birmingham Hippodrome for ‘Only Remembered’. After a sell-out four-week run of the acclaimed National Theatre production War Horse, Michael joined musicians John Tams and Barry Coope to give an intimate reading of excerpts from the novel.
If Michael Morpurgo hadn’t become a prolific children’s author, he would have made a remarkable stage actor. Although unassuming, as he walked on stage and smiled coyly at his audience, the moment he began to read I was immediately transported to the world of one horse’s experience in the First World War.
Set in 1914, Joey, a young farm horse, is sold to the army and thrust into the midst of the war on the Western Front. Witnessing the horror of the front-line and the desolation of the trenches, Joey’s courage touches all who meet him.
I first happened upon War Horse when I was nine years old. A rather precocious child, I was relieved to find that Morpurgo addressed me as an equal rather than subordinate. I began at last to understand the loss and suffering in the war my great-grandparents faced. It was the first novel that made me sit up and pay attention, and rightly so.
The unequivocal horror of World War 1 claimed not only the lives of millions of men and women but also the lives of over six million horses. Morpurgo’s tale is an adept portrayal of the incomprehensible nature of war, as the reader sees the world from Joey’s perspective. Whilst completely aware of his younger audience, Morpurgo never shies away from highlighting the violence of human cruelty and disdain for both animals and each other. It is this bravery as an author that has no doubt won him respect from children across the world.
Morpurgo was a fine and sensitive orator; heralding his days as a teacher. Each new accent, from Devonshire to German, was tackled flawlessly; waves of laughter erupted particularly at his depiction of a Welsh soldier. Funny and heartwarming throughout, his ability to change tone at the drop of a hat left me breathless on several occasions.
One extract was particularly powerful when read aloud. ‘Mad Friedrich’, the German ammunitions cart driver is talking to Joey and another horse ‘Topthorne’:
‘I tell you, my friends,’ he said one day. ‘I tell you that I am the only sane man in the regiment. It’s the others that are mad, but they don’t know it. They fight a war and they don’t know what for. Isn’t that crazy? How can one man kill another and not really know the reason why he does it, except that the other man wears a different colour uniform and speaks a different language? And it’s me they call mad!’
Unfortunately, I felt the background music detracted from Morpurgo’s reading. Although John Tams and Barry Coope were clearly talented musicians, the songs and synthesised keyboard seemed an odd choice and I often felt myself willing for it to stop so Morpurgo could continue with his story. The music did suit, however, when the two sang war songs from the period; this added an extra element of reality that grounded us even more in Joey’s world.
The old adage ‘never meet your idols’ fell completely short. Michael Morpurgo was magnificent and I fell in love with War Horse all over again. It was a pleasure to see such a varied audience responding to his work. Groups of schoolchildren mingled with students and the elderly for an afternoon of reminding ourselves why Remembrance Day is so important.
By Elisha Owen