WWI youth novel ‘Private Peaceful’ takes center stage in London
Special to Stars and Stripes
A young soldier is alone in the remnants of a barn, waiting out the night hours until dawn.
“I want tonight to be long, long as my life, not fleeting dreams that rush me on towards dawn,” Pvt. “Tommo” Peaceful explains to readers in the opening passage of the 2003 youth novel “Private Peaceful.”
“Tonight, more than any other night of my life, I want to feel alive.”
A bittersweet story of brotherly love set against World War I, Michael Morpurgo’s “Private Peaceful” details the Devon, England, childhoods and teen soldiering of Tommo and his older brother Charlie while also exploring a darker truth — the injustice surrounding the executions of soldiers by firing squad for often untrue accusations of cowardice or desertion. It climaxes with a tragic, yet ultimately uplifting, ending.
Of Morpurgo’s books for young people, American audiences are likely more familiar with “War Horse,” which became a stage phenomenon in London and New York before it was turned into an epic Steven Spielberg film last year.
But 2013 is “Private Peaceful’s” year: a radio adaptation was broadcast this year on BBC Radio Four, then repeated by popular demand. A film version will hit the screens this autumn. And this month, the story will come to life on London’s West End for 16 performances as a one-man play under the auspices of the National Theatre.
Behind the adaptations of all three was writer Simon Reade, who also directed this production of the play. Asked how the abundance of productions had emerged this year, Reade jovially told Stars and Stripes, “There’s no grand scheme of things going on — it’s just a nice little car crash.”
In all, Reade has adapted “Private Peaceful” for different mediums four times, the fourth being a stage version for a full cast. And he is no newcomer to Morpurgo’s other youth novels. “He’s become a friend, he’s become a colleague, and I’ve worked on a number of other stories of his,” Reade said of the Devon-based author, a previous children’s laureate.
Morpurgo’s appeal for Reade is “he’s seeing the world through the children’s eyes. That doesn’t mean it’s childish; it’s childlike, it’s playful, it’s idealistic, it has hope and is also has extremes of suffering that children can go through,” Reade said. “As a result of that, he has got these amazing dramatic stories — it’s wonderful stuff to turn into theater because of what these characters go through and the incredible emotional journeys that they go on and the rites of passage they pass through.”
The war settings, he said, “throw up these endurance tests for children. From a storyteller’s point of view, they’re an amazing background … highlighting the terrible situations we find ourselves in.”
Sharing the role of Tommo Peaceful onstage are actors Paul Chequer and Mark Quartley, who portrayed the brothers in the radio play. Both have played the role of Tommo separately in other productions, and both have been embraced by Morpurgo in taking on the role. Quartley told Stars and Stripes that the author and his wife had invited the actor to their home in Iddesleigh, Devon, where “Private Peaceful” is set, to explore the area. “He still likes to be very connected with it,” Quartley said.
The staging will be simple, with a minimum of special effects to convey the simplicity of the story.
“We have very clever staging where the bed can become a trench at one point,” Quartley revealed. “We use subtle lighting and manipulation of the bed and items of clothing to enhance the story.”
Chequer has a role in the film “Private Peaceful,” and by coincidence, also had a role in the original stage company of “War Horse.” Although he has been involved with various productions of “Private Peaceful” for nearly 10 years, Chequer said he still is immersing himself in research to get a sense of his character’s experience. “I’m hoping to get over to Belgium before we start, see the graves and Ypres [Belgium, the location of many Allied-German battles during World War I].”
Chequer said he hoped London audiences will “get a sense of what war has done to families and young people especially. ...”
Because “Private Peaceful” shares with “War Horse” an author, a World War I backdrop and an idealistic young hero, Reade acknowledged that audiences might compare and contrast the two tales and stage productions.
“As Michael [Morpurgo] says himself – he loves having his stuff adapted – what tickles him is that on the one hand, ‘Private Peaceful,’ the play, is one man on a bare stage with a bed, conjuring different characters and taking us on this extraordinary journey. By contrast, you have the bells and whistles and puppets and production values, and God knows what with ‘War Horse,’ ” Reade said, referring to the stage production of “War Horse,” which features complicated puppets as the animal characters.
Reade said, “If you see ‘War Horse’ and ‘Private Peaceful,’ you see you can actually tell stories from that period in these completely contrasting ways, and yet they’re still coming from the pen of the same author. He doesn’t play the same trick twice.”
Know & go
“Private Peaceful” is playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Address: Haymarket, London SW1Y 4HT
Nearest Underground station: Piccadilly Circus
Show dates: Sept. 18-29
Performances: 7:30 p.m., matinees on Sept. 19, 22, 26, 27, and 29 at 2:30.
Ticket prices: 10 pounds to 25 pounds
Box office: National Theatre box office (no booking fee) at +44 (0)20-7452-3000 ornationaltheatre.org.uk; Theatre Royal Haymarket box office (booking fee applies) at +44 (0)20-7930-8800 or trh.co.uk
Suitable for ages 8 and older.