Alexander Knott will direct a new production of Simon Reade’s play adaptation of Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo at BarnFest, The Barn Theatre in Cirencester’s first Summer outdoor theatre festival.

Private Peaceful was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, won the Red House Children’s Book Award and won the Blue Peter Book Award. Acknowledged by Michael Morpurgo (War HorseThe Butterfly Lion) as his favourite work, this adaption by Simon Reade tells the story of a country lad fighting a war he doesn’t understand, for people he cannot respect.

Private Peaceful, directed by Alexander Knott will run at BarnFest from 17th to 22nd August 2020.  Tickets are on sale here.

You are directing Private Peaceful at BarnFest, what can you tell us about it?

It’s the story of Tommo Peaceful, a young man growing up in the countryside as the Great War looms. It’s the story of the bond he shares with his charismatic brother, Charlie, and the lengths they would go to for each other in impossible circumstances. It’s a love story between both them, and the girl that they both fall for. It’s adapted from a novel deserving of being called a modern classic, by Michael Morpurgo, and is simultaneously a war story, a tale of brothers in arms, and a searing indictment of the way British soldiers were punished for conscientious objection and other “crimes”.  While written for a young audience, its richly woven stuff.

What excites you the most about this new adaptation from Simon Reade?

The greatest strength of the adaptation is in his allowing Morpurgo’s original words to sing out. Very little, if anything, has been added to the play version. Some elements and characters present in the book have been stripped away, but that’s not to the detriment of the story.

Rehearsals for Private Peaceful
Rehearsals for Private Peaceful

Simon Reade has streamlined the tale to the bare bones of the relationships between the characters, and its all the stronger for it. The prose of the novel is so accessible to a reader of any age, and that’s not been changed. The script also has that immediacy and punch to it. It’s inherently theatrical – a young man, telling the audience his tale, with very little gilding of the lily, leaving us to summon the world of the play for the audience.

Michael Morpurgo says this is his favourite work, does that add any pressure to your role?

Before rehearsals began I might have said yes, maybe, but now that we know he’s coming to the first show, it’s yes, most definitely!

We’ve had numerous conversations about “are we going too far with this character?”, “are we being true to the spirit of the novel?” but ultimately, we’ve landed at the fact that the whole play takes place in Tommo’s young, vivid memory. So, we want his life back home to be as colourful as he finds it, and the tragedy of war to be as harrowing as possible, bearing a younger audience in mind. I think the story is about the loss of innocence, and I think our production shows that happening – from a vivid, vital world, to a man whose spirit has been utterly ruined by war.

You were involved with the last show to run in London before lockdown, how does it feel to be back making theatre, and how is BarnFest making the current restrictions work?

It’s really good to be back. I underestimated the impact lockdown would have on my mental health, and I know a fair few people who feel the same. Particularly in theatre, having that sense of purpose and community ripped out from under you was hugely disconcerting. To go from feeling really part of something, to relative solitude was bizarre. So, it’s an immense privilege to be back rehearsing, and to feel some sense of normality, and I’m very grateful to be feeling that. It’s been an absolute joy to work on so far – aside from the horrors of WW1 we’re staging.

BarnFest are remarkable for being such trailblazers with the restrictions. The audience is in socially distanced “pods” of four (with deals for pods of two becoming available nearer to the performances), so the restrictions are at the forefront of considerations. Staff PPE, cleanliness and hygiene have all been thoroughly factored in, and their outdoor stage and seating have taken the essence of what makes for a great night of entertainment – sharing it with a live community – and made it work in these weird times. We’re all very proud to be a part of such a welcome and necessary endeavour.

Your own company are co-producing, what BoxLess Theatre twists can we expect in this production?

For a start, Tommo is being played by a woman, Emily Costello, and the whole world, from the rural countryside to the trenches of Ypres is created through live musical instruments. There is, I hope, such warmth to Charlie and Tommo’s world, that when the war comes, the stakes are high for the audience. This is Morpurgo’s novel told through an acoustic, folk-tale lens, where a roughly hewn wooden stick might be a rifle and a swooping swallow is a tin whistle. It’s a style I hope any age might find joy in.

Tell us about your cast, and how you’ve been managing socially distanced rehearsals?

Emily has a boundless enthusiasm and really youthful energy that’s incredibly endearing; and that’s exactly what the character needed. We initially thought we might explore a Mulan-esque disguising of gender to fight alongside her brother, but we left that aside for historical accuracy.

Rehearsals for Private Peaceful
Rehearsals for Private Peaceful

Live music and the whole creation of Tommo’s world is by James Demaine, and what he can conjure up with a guitar and a bag full of instruments is remarkable. They’re both wonderful artists and lovely people. We’ve been rehearsing outdoors a lot, to both ensure distance and to see how the story will carry, and while we get the occasional funny look from a dog walker, its fascinating to see how their performances grow and grow once they’re unfettered by four walls.

Has directing outdoor theatre thrown up any other challenges you weren’t expecting?

Curious dog walkers aside, two notable incidents include being moved on from our location by a children’s art class – shifting a military drill so that five to ten year olds can paint wasn’t too much of a hardship! And then when moving on, an older lady noted the guitar and whistles and immediately enquired “Do you make much money with your busking?”

But that feels like what this whole process has been about – stripping theatre back to its roving troubadour roots, and creating a production that we can pick up, put down, and engage the imagination with instruments and story. Telling a story that has such emotional depth with a bag full of sticks and some costumes feels like the just the right thing to do in an outdoor setting.

What would you say to anyone thinking of coming to see Private Peaceful?

If you know the story already, this is Michael Morpurgo’s novel brought to vivid life, and if you don’t know it, it’s a very warm, human war play that all ages can take something from. Safe, outdoor theatre with music; even though indoor work is still on hold, we hope we’ve got something for all the family.

Main Image: Alexander Knott, director of Private Peaceful, running at BarnFest from 17th to 22nd August 2020

Greg is an award-winning writer with a huge passion for theatre. He has appeared on stage, as well as having directed several plays in his native Scotland. Greg is the founder and editor of Theatre Weekly

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