Michael Morpurgo was all in red – his trademark red denim suit, red socks – even red handkerchief which he flourished several times during the performance. His novel, War Horse was well known to many in the packed Sheldonian Theatre. Parents or children – it was hard to say who was more excited. The book, the stage play at the National Theatre, and Steven Spielberg’s film: what more could this live reading add to a story already so well known?
Magic. The stardust of Morpurgo’s brilliant gift for storytelling, and the immediacy of live performance. While Morpurgo’s tale described mud, blood and heartbreak, the musicians John Tamms and Barry Coope evoked a lost world. Their ravishing harmonies told of a pastoral idyll transformed to a Stygian battle-blackened hell .
Like Anna Sewell’s ‘Black Beauty’, the world is seen through a horse’s eyes. In ‘War Horse’the wartime narrative of sanctuary, love, separation and peril is seen through the eyes of Joey, a red roan with a black mane and tail, and four perfect white socks. He responds to voice, to touch and to noise. It’s the way he affects human behaviour which helps us gauge their moral stature. Kindness and brutality are meted out, in equal measure at a cracking, whip lashing pace. Morpurgo’s gift for mimicry brings a range of characters of all ages alive.
Morpurgo is one of Britain’s finest Children’s Laureates, but ‘War Horse’ depicts a hard-hitting, adult world with unflinching accuracy –in the description of one of Morpurgo’s villains: ‘with eyes like a wasp’. Yet the profound humanity and pity of the story arises from the eyes of children and animals. They’re affected by the horrors of adult decision-making, yet retain their clear vision and good heartedness.
Morpurgo too, in his rapport with both the audience and the two musicians demonstrated an ease and generosity which culminated in both a rousing encore and a leisurely meet-and-greet afterwards.