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Canterbury: War Horse author Michael Morpurgo talks about his love for Canterbury, writing and War Horse

A tale of courage, loyalty and friendship set against the backdrop of the First World War, War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, is the most successful play in the National Theatre’s history.

As it celebrates its 10th anniversary with a national tour which starts at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, War Horse author Michael Morpurgo talks about his love for the city, how he came to be a writer and what Joey the warhorse means to him.

For author Michael Morpurgo, Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre has a special place in his heart.

“My mother and father were acting in rep at the Marlowe in 1938,” he says. “I believe it was where they fell in love and decided to get married.

“They were young, and no doubt full of hope for the future. The Second World War was to blight their lives and their marriage. I grew up in a family scarred by war. This was, I am sure, why I came to write War Horse all those years ago, why peace and war have been at the heart of so many stories I have written before and since.”

He was working at nearby Wickhambreaux Primary School when he began writing, after feeling frustration with some of the books he was reading to his class.

“It all started in a mobile classroom in Wickhambreaux that I first started telling stories,” he says now.

It was his mother who instilled in him a love of stories, reading to him every night as a boy, with passion.

Michael Morpurgo, whose book War Horse was adapted for the stage
Michael Morpurgo, whose book War Horse was adapted for the stage

“She made bedtime a joy. Whatever we become or whatever we achieve in this life, we only do it with the help and inspiration of others.”

Teachers at school inspired him growing up, and, as a frustrated writer while teaching, his wife Clare gave him the courage to write his own.

He says: “Suddenly I found I could do this stuff. But she always thought War Horse was my best book. She was right, it seems. She must be, because Joey has trotted on all these years, in one guise or another, as a book, a play, in concert form, as a film. For some reason it took off. It is very rare.

The book wasn’t really successful – it was 25 years before anyone came along and showed an interest in it. 

"What I really love doing is telling stories in which you express what you feel about the world.”

Today, Michael continues to write, at home, which is now in Dartmoor, where he says he looks out on views, writing in bed, as Robert Louis Stevenson did. “I’m very lucky to have those views – they will be the same in 1,000 years. I write in what you would call a writing bed.”

Writing with animals has been an integral part of his stories. With War Horse, Joey the horse is as real a character as Albert, who searches for Joey through the battlefields of France.

“Whenever I write a story, the animals become very real. I can see the stories very clearly in my mind’s eye. For War Horse, I observed for many years the interaction between my wife and my horse on the farm,” he says.

The National Theatre's War Horse is at the Marlowe for its 10th anniversary
The National Theatre's War Horse is at the Marlowe for its 10th anniversary

He has been involved with the adaptation of his books to the stage, relishing being part of it. “I go and talk to the cast about where it is set and where it was imagined. It gives them some sense of the idea behind the story. I love to go and see them rehearse. Sometimes if I am lucky they say I can go on stage too – I have got a costume which I keep at home.

“The cast are all very fit and enthusiastic. They come with really interesting questions. They all know that what this play is about, something unspeakably awful and terrible,” he says, adding: “They have a responsibility to work with that – they have to feel the history.”

* War Horse is at the Marlowe Theatre until Saturday, October 14. There is limited availability. To book go to marlowetheatre.com or call 01227 787787.

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