Observations: Morpurgo climbs back into the saddle


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The Independent Culture

Michael Morpurgo's second page-to-stage adaptation, Private Peaceful has made its debut in the West End following the success of the multi-award-winning War Horse at the National Theatre. It tells the story of Tommo, a young First World War soldier awaiting a firing squad at dawn. Inspired by a visit to Ypres, Morpurgo (pictured right) wrote the novel after being shocked to discover how many young soldiers were court-martialled and shot for cowardice during the conflict. "Every single story I write is triggered by someone else," he says. "In War Horse, it was meeting a couple of veterans from the First World War who handed their stories on to me."

Private Peaceful is a one-man stage play adapted and directed by Simon Reade, who premiered it in 2004 at Bristol Old Vic, where he was artistic director. As with War Horse, a film adaptation of Private Peaceful, also by Reade, is due for UK release next month, with a cast including George Mackay, Richard Griffiths and Maxine Peake.

"Private Peaceful the play and the film came about before War Horse, really, and it was all thanks to Simon Reade. He heard me talking about the book on the Today programme. He rang me up and said: 'I've got to make a play about this but it has to be a one man show and therefore, I have to change the end of it'.

"With every adaptation you're going to have your reservations. When the National Theatre said they were going to have these South African puppeteers making puppets for War Horse, I really thought they were cuckoo. I didn't see how puppets could be taken seriously, but then I was told by Philip Pullman (after the National staged His Dark Materials), 'You just have to make the decision, Michael. If you say "yes" to them, then you must then have the confidence that you've made the right decision about the people you're handing it to'. The lovely thing about Private Peaceful, of course, is that it's so simple. It's just one man on a stage with a bed."

Morpurgo, 68, is a former Children's Laureate but prefers to call himself a "story-teller" rather than a children's writer. Once a primary school teacher, he speaks candidly about teaching and the importance of enjoyment in education – getting children out of exams and into the theatre. "That doesn't come through forcing them to produce answers in exams."

'Private Peaceful', Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1 (www.trh.co.uk) until 29 September