Running Wild by Michael Morpurgo
Kate Gould meets author and former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo and conservationist and founder of Born Free Foundation, Virginia McKenna to discuss the new UK Tour of Running Wild by Michael Morpurgo.
Michael tells me the stories, both of which featured elephants, enchanted and fascinated him so much they have stayed with him ever since. In fact, he says they struck such a chord that he always longed to write his own novel about a child and an elephant. However given such tales already existed he resolved to push the idea to the back of his mind.
“I loved both books growing up,” he recalls. “My mother used to read The Elephant’s Child to me and it made me giggle and laugh. Kipling used such wonderful language in his stories and these two in particular, which also left me with a love of elephants – so much so that I wanted to write my own about an elephant and its bond with a child.
“I couldn’t see how I could do it, so tried to forget about it, but then there was a ghastly event in 2004, the Boxing Day tsunami that killed 300,000 people. It was one of the greatest and most awful natural tragedies in my lifetime, with nature being as ferocious and wild as it can be.
“It was in the news for weeks and the stories that emerged were horrible. But then I read one about a family who had been on holiday and on that beach when it happened. A boy had begged his mother to let him have an elephant ride. Finally she agreed and off he went. He was there with the elephant and his handler when the sea went so far out exposing great swathes of the beach.
“No one knew what was happening but the elephant began to get agitated. He struggled, breaking free of his handler, and with the boy still on his back charged up the beach and ran away from the danger and deep into the forest. Fortunately it had a happy ending in that the family was eventually reunited.
“However, I realised as I read this in the newspaper that here for the first time was the story right there in front of me that I had longed to write – a story that I could create of my own about an elephant and a child and one not connected to Kipling.”
Inspired by what he had read, Michael began his research into elephants, the tsunami, and in turn the rainforests, what man is doing to both protect and destroy them, and to find out about the animals that live there.
The fruits of his labours, Running Wild, was a book he says he not only felt compelled to write but also really enjoyed. Based on the true story, it is full of adventure as it tells of young Will, who goes on holiday to Indonesia with his mum and who gets the chance to ride an elephant on the beach one day. All goes well but then the tsunami hits. The elephant senses danger and, charging deep into the jungle, it escapes the beach with her young rider desperately clinging on. Miles from civilisation, at first there’s wonder, discovery and tree-top adventures amongst the orangutans.
But then, as Will remembers his mum left behind, wild tigers start to prowl, hunger hits, and he must learn to survive the rainforest. Once published, Michael moved on to thinking about his next novel. But then he got a call from Chichester Festival Theatre to say they wanted to turn his story into a play.
He cheerfully admits he was not convinced it could be adapted for the stage, and he says he was even more sceptical about their idea of a cast made up entirely of children and puppets. However, the resulting show, staged by the Chichester Festival Youth Theatre as a promenade production in a forest outside the town, “completely enchanted” him.
“I really didn’t think it was adaptable for the stage,” he tells me. “But I thought I’d let them get on with it, which they did. I was a bit apprehensive about seeing it, because, not only were they doing it using 100 child actors who were also puppeteers as well, but it was a promenade production where we followed the cast scene by scene to different parts of the site.
“Although I thought it was over ambitious, I rather liked the idea.
“I went to see it and it was enchanting, absolutely magical. They had recreated the jungle of Indonesia in this forest, with amazing and ingenious puppets, creatures everywhere and it was beautifully lit.
“The music was wonderful, the costumes were extraordinary and I loved it. To see the whole jungle unfold and the child on the back of the elephant was out of this world. I knew it would get starry reviews because it was fabulous – and it was done entirely by children.”
Indeed it was so successful that last summer a modified version was staged at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London. That too was a hit and so now the production is being revived again for a major UK tour travelling to all parts of the UK, something that Michael is understandably delighted about.
It is particularly thrilling for him because the production will support the work of the Born Free Foundation, set up in 1984 by Virginia McKenna, her late husband Bill Travers and eldest son Will – following the death of a teenage elephant in a zoo.
“I think it is fabulous that they are adapting it further for a national tour because it means so many more people can come and see it and be enchanted and inspired by it,” he says. “It will be slightly different in that, instead of being outside, it will now be inside on a stage and using mostly adult actors rather than all children, but the story will be the same, as will the puppets and I’m sure they will do a fantastic job with it.
“What’s wonderful for me is that this story, which I really enjoyed writing and moved me considerably, has grown and changed with each production.
“I also met the child, Amber, now in her 20s, whose true story inspired the book – and in fact, because of my faulty memory, it was actually a girl not a boy, so in the play we now have a girl playing the child, which is rather wonderful.
“Amber and her family’s experience was incredible and I know they were moved when they saw the show.
“I’m also delighted it is supporting the Born Free Foundation. I’ve known Virginia a long time and she has helped me enormously in the past in research for other books I’ve written such as Butterfly Lion.
“The work her charity does is extraordinary and so important. She is passionate about saving these incredible creatures and the environment in which they live, which we are in serious danger of wiping out.”
For Virginia McKenna, the show is a perfect fit for the Born Free Foundation, which has spent the past 30 years fighting to protect endangered species across the globe and educating people through their conservation projects.
“I am thrilled we can be associated with this production,” she tells me. “Born Free Foundation’s work is very much in sympathy with the soul of the play and respecting animals.
“I went to see it last year with two of my grandchildren. It was sensational, so magical and thrilling and we absolutely loved it. In fact my granddaughter burst into tears at the end and wanted to see it again!
“I hadn’t read the book before we went to see it, which made the impact greater. It is the most beautiful story and so wonderfully told in this production – it’s the perfect family show because, not only does it entertain, thrill and engross everyone who sees it, it also encourages you to think about these amazing animals, what we as human beings are doing and hopefully educate people about their plight.
“Some animals are being wiped out because of our desire for ivory or skin or fur, or just hunting for ‘fun’. Some are kept in terrible captive conditions.
“There are only about 400,000 elephants and 20,000 lions left in Africa. Not just that, their natural habitat is shrinking. It’s really shocking and why Born Free’s work is more important than ever.
“This play is so wonderful, as it shows people how animals live in the wild, and the challenges they face. Also how to understand and respect them.
“Education is key. Children are the next leaders so it’s important we encourage them to be compassionate, as it will affect how they think and hopefully ensure the future of these wonderful creatures.
“Michael Morpurgo is one of the most generous people I have ever met and to include us in the history and future of this incredible play has been amazing.
“I can’t wait to come and see it again!”
And Michael says he hopes people will be inspired by what they see.
“I hope it’s a story that engages young and old and that is both entertaining and educational,” he says.
“Every story should help us to think and if this does that and makes people determined that the persecution of animals and the destruction of the rainforest shouldn’t continue, then we will have succeeded. That’s why storytelling – in all its forms – is so important and what Chichester has done, to create a production that enables children and their families to enjoy something together, is fantastic.”
Running Wild will be at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool, from 4-8 April 2017.
To book tickets visit blackpoolgrand.co.uk or call 01253 290 190
For more information on Born Free please visit www.bornfree.org.uk
Audience members will get the opportunity to enter a special competition to win a family holiday to Sri Lanka and visit to Born Free’s elephant orphanage, in association with Kuoni. Details of how to enter can be found in the production programmes.