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How director Simon Reade translated Michael Morpurgo's novel Private Peaceful to the stage
You know from the outset that the titular character of Private Peaceful dies at the end. But discovering how the 17-year-old World War I soldier came to be awaiting execution is a compelling journey. "Tonight, more than any other night of my life, I want to feel alive!" says Thomas "Tommo" Peaceful before launching into his harrowing tale, which spans two decades and features more than 20 characters, all played by Shane O'Regan.
The good-hearted but tragic character comes from War Horse author Michael Morpurgo's young-adult novel of the same name. Director-playwright Simon Reade was inspired to bring it to the stage after hearing Morpurgo read from the book on the radio. "In most of the works that I've adapted, there's always been this kind of child character who can see the world for what it is and is not afraid to say what it is because they haven't learned all the codes and the hypocrisy and the mess of what it is to become an adult," says Reade. Indeed, Tommo's openness and innocence make his downfall especially heartbreaking.
Reade has theatricalized a total of five Morpurgo novels (including The Mozart Question and Toro! Toro!), but Private Peaceful was the first, back in 2004 at the Bristol Old Vic. He had already met the author socially, which gave Reade the confidence not only to ask about staging it, but to suggest changing the ending. In the book, it's another Private Peaceful -- Tommo's older brother Charlie -- who's executed, but Reade thought it would make a more effective solo show if the narrator met that fate.
"If you've lived with this young boy through his whole life in one evening, and then at the end he says, 'Oh, it's all right, I don't die, it was my brother,' you might feel cheated," Reade explains. "I said this to Michael and he looked at me very sternly, didn't say anything for about 30 seconds, and then accepted that it would be fine." In addition to this solo stage version of Private Peaceful, currently running Off-Broadway at TBG Mainstage, Reade has also adapted it for radio and penned the screenplay for the 2012 film, which used the original ending.
Despite such a major narrative change, Reade feels his show stays true to the spirit of the source material because, like the book, it's told in Tommo's playful voice. "All he's got is the bed and the uniform that he's standing up in," says Reade. "The idea was like a young person in their room, inventing things. You get your duvet and your pillow and suddenly you're on the side of Mount Everest."
This production of Private Peaceful, which will tour to other U.S. cities after its New York City engagement ends, originated in Dublin with O'Regan, who was nominated for an Irish Theatre Award for his work. It's easy to see why: He's constantly in motion for the play's whirlwind 80 minutes, switching voices and accents and cavorting around the stage as Tommo evolves from rural British schoolboy to disillusioned soldier.
Since the show features minimal design, O'Regan needs to engage the audience members' imaginations as well as their emotions, communicating the horrors of war through his performance. "I just responded to a mixture of his charisma and his curiosity, and he's quite tough as well," Reade says about casting the young actor. "He's very bright and he's very versatile and he's physically and vocally very strong."
Reade has been working on this material on and off in various incarnations for almost 15 years, but he says collaborating with new actors "keeps me fresh," even though war stories, he notes, remain sadly timely. "The terrible waste of life because of illegal wars fought without any feeling for young people still carries on, whoever is responsible," he observes.
One thing has changed since he originally mounted Private Peaceful: In 2006, the U.K. government pardoned more than 300 WWI British and Commonwealth soldiers who, like the fictional Tommo, were executed for cowardice or desertion. Perhaps Private Peaceful played a part in that legislation. As Reade says: "You hope by constantly telling these kinds of stories that somewhere you will have some kind of influence on people's compassion, and that the next generation, hopefully, will be a bit more broad-minded."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Private Peaceful. Go here to browse our current offers.
Diane Snyder writes about theatre for Time Out New York and The Telegraph. Follow her at @DianeLSnyder. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Shane O'Regan in Private Peaceful. Photos by Aaron R. Foster.