The animal magic of jumbo giant

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A spectacular life-size puppet elephant is undoubtedly the star of Running Wild, the stage adaptation of a Michael Morpurgo story, which comes to the Lyceum Theatre next week.

Running Wild tells of a girl named Lilly on holiday with her mother in Indonesia who goes for an elephant ride on the beach. Oona, the elephant she is riding, suddenly becomes anxious and veers away from the sea and heads deep into the jungle just as the tsunami hits the island.

The elephant must move around because the story is about a journey

Miles from civilisation, at first there’s wonder, discovery and tree-top adventures with orangutans, but, as thoughts turn to her mother left behind on the beach, and wild tigers prowl, and hunger hits, Lilly must learn to survive the rainforest.

The show originated in open-air performances at Chichester and Regent’s Park and the first challenge for the directors of the touring production was how to fit an elephant on stage.

Not only that. “The elephant must move around because the story is all about a journey,” said Toby Olié who is responsible for puppetry design and direction for the show.

Previously associate puppetry directors on War Horse, the worldwide hit based on another Morpurgo story, he and colleague Finn Caldwell knew how to make it work.

As with the horses the puppets on Running Wild do not form complete animals. “It’s deliberately low-tech,” says Olié. “We want the audience to be encouraged to fill in the blanks.”

The puppeteers are visible to the audience and provide vocals for the animals. “They focus on what the puppets are interested in. If you look at them they are looking at the puppets so you follow them.” In any case after a while there is a tendency for the audience to cease to notice they are there.

There are other tricks to make them lifelike. Showing the animals breathing is one of the principals of puppetry – “the main emotional indicator” according to Olié.

Another is weight. “The puppets have to weigh a lot less than the real animals but you have to give a sense of weight so they feel like the real deal.”

The elephant is worked by four puppeteers (compared with three on War Horse). One of the reasons is that it has to carry the weight of a human. One puppeteer is responsible for the trunk, another the head and the others the front and back legs (that one also works the tail).

“It was a question of finding a unison between the four and so making it live without being too anthropomorphic and too choreographed and human.”

The lead role of Lilly will be shared by three young actresses, Jemima Bennett, India Brown and Annika Whiston.

Michael Morpurgo was inspired by a newspaper report of Amber Owen who went through a similar experience as an eight-year-old riding an elephant on a beach in Thailand in 2004. “He ran away and, as the water came in, I was safely on his back,” she was quoted as saying. “He saved my life.”

The author thought it was the one bit of hope amid the destruction of the Boxing Day tsunami which hit South East Asia.

The protagonist in his book and the original stage adaptation was a boy but in this touring production it has reverted to a girl. The family of the real child came to see the show and then wrote to him to point out the real story was about a girl. “I had to tell them, that’s what happens with stories. I have seen it with a boy and a girl and I don’t think it matters,” he said.

It’s a story of love, loss and loyalty and of living for the moment but the message is secondary to the story.

“I write about what interests me. If it is about war then I am longing for peace and I hope that comes across but I don’t set out to put out a message of peace. If you set off writing a polemic it doesn’t work. You want them to make up their minds for themselves. I hope they will come away worrying about it and in this case asking what is going on in the rainforest.

“Christmas Carol says a lot about the huge gap between rich and poor and how they are ignored but fundamentally it’s a great story and that’s why you want to go on reading. Then when you think about it there’s a message.

“It’s got a bit of Kipling’s Elephant Child and Jungle Book and also Treasure Island and Kensuke’s Kingdom.”

Running Wild was written in 2007/8. “The story had sat around in my head,” says the former children’s laureate. “I took advice from that great Yorkshireman Ted Hughes who said when I was having difficulty with a book I should spend longer dreaming it up rather than writing and researching. Leaving it to the imagination.”

The production will work to support the Born Free Foundation’s global elephant conservation projects. Born Free, founded by movie stars Virginia McKenna and late husband Bill Travers, protects lions, elephants, tigers, gorillas, wolves, polar bears, dolphins, marine turtles and many more species in their natural habitat, working with local communities to help people and wildlife live together without conflict.

Running Wild is at the Lyceum Theatre from Tuesday to Saturday.