Danyah Miller has adapted Michael Morpurgo’s I Believe in Unicorns for the stage, which plays at the Polka Theatre in Wimbledon from the 14th to the 18th February. She spoke to Love London Love Culture about adapting the beloved author’s story. 

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(c)Richard Davenport. 

Hi Danyah thank you so much for talking to Love London Love Culture. When did you first discover I Believe in Unicorns?

When my daughter was young, 6 years old, she set up her own ‘storytelling club’ which was hugely successful. Lots of children of all ages attended and parents began to come too. We hosted this in our home for 2 years. When it was coming to an end one of the mothers gave me a book, ’I Believe in Unicorns’ by Michael Morpurgo, to say thank you. I had never heard of it, but as soon as I read it I instantly fell in love with the story and connected with the Unicorn Lady. I immediately wanted to bring the story on to stage and so the journey began!

What was it about the story that stood out for you?

As a storyteller myself I know how powerful stories are, how they begin to work on us magically almost as soon as they have been shared. Two things particularly stood out for me, one is Tomas’ personal journey changing from a boy who doesn’t want to read or go to school to someone who gets lost in his imagination through story and books. The other thing that stood out for me was the power of community particularly when the villagers rally together to save the books from the burning library. I love how people come together in times of hardship to support one another. Of course the Unicorn Story is also extraordinary, but I can’t tell you any more about that… you’ll have to come and see the show!

Could you explain a bit more about the story? 

I Believe in Unicorns is a tale about a young boy called Tomas, who hates reading and school, but his mother drags him to the library where he meets the Unicorn Lady. His world is turned upside down when he finds as much joy and excitement within the pages of the books as he does up on his beloved mountains. This library is filled with books that hold more than stories within their pages. When war comes to Tomas’ village it is his bravery that ensures that the books are saved and that the library is available for future children.

How did you approach adapting the story for the stage?

Dani Parr (director) Kate Bunce (designer) and I worked collaboratively from the start. Before rehearsals began we discussed ideas so that during our ‘development days’ we were able to play and experiment with lots of different ways of staging these various concepts. We knew almost immediately that we wanted the set to be made entirely from books, so that any ‘prop’ would be hidden inside a book, we explored many ways to reveal different props in order to create the story. The set was made and almost finished before we started rehearsals so that we could integrate this into each scene of the play. We devised the show together, improvising and playing with ideas, with words and with movement – we choreographed the show to include story, music and projection – these were all integral to our rehearsals.

For those coming along to the Polka Theatre, what can the audiences expect?

It’s an interactive, solo show set in a library full of books with surprises in their pages. The show has been seen by over 65,000 people and we receive incredible feedback wherever we play this show. Children often ask ‘are you magic?’ and ‘I want to see this again’. We have been told that the show has made them laugh out loud, moved them to tears, inspired them to tell stories with their children, one child announced she was ready to move from picture stories to chapter books and a policeman admitted that he was prompted to pick up a book after 35 years!

Storytelling underpins not just literacy but gives confidence and helps us to build our ability to think and use our imagination, which Einstein said was more important than knowledge!

Audiences can expect to be taken on magical journey that is playful, painful, sad and joyfully up-lifting. We believe that it is suitable for everyone from the age of 6 to 106 and we have a suspicion that you will go home believing in Unicorns!

So many of Michael Morpurgo’s stories have been transformed for the stage over the years – what do you think makes his work so appealing for the stage?

I think that what you need first and foremost to create good theatre is a really strong and compelling story. Sir Michael Morpurgo writes these kinds of stories, stories about everyday people who often find themselves in extraordinary circumstances where they have to dig deep inside themselves to find courage to overcome difficulties. He writes about things that touch us all, about our connection to animals and tales which tell of the consequences of war on individuals and communities. His stories lend themselves to the stage because they are so visual and visceral. We have also found that Michael is very generous in allowing us to adapt his stories without being fixed about how or what we create. He seems instinctively to understand that reading stories and watching on stage are very different mediums and he trust us to be able to transform what he was created into a different art form. I think this is quite rare.

How would you describe I Believe in Unicorns for potential audiences?

An adventure from everyone young and old.

I Believe in Unicorns will continue to play at the Polka Theatre until the 18th February. For more information and to book tickets visit: https://polkatheatre.com/event/i-believe-unicorns/

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