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War Horse production heading to Brighton

PUBLISHED: 11:35 30 January 2018

Joey visits Brighton beach ahead of his performance at the nearby Brighton Centre © Alex Rumford

Joey visits Brighton beach ahead of his performance at the nearby Brighton Centre © Alex Rumford

© Alex Rumford

Having entertained more than 7m people across the globe the National Theatre’s production of War Horse is making its live Brighton debut

Joey, the star of War Horse, has “seen more heads of state and royalty than most celebrities” according to Matthew Forbes, the touring show’s puppet director.

And being in the same room as Joey is an unforgettable experience. The highly experienced three-strong team at his head, heart and hind combine perfectly to create a living, breathing horse which moves skittishly, reacts to extraneous noise, and gives a realistic blow and whinny. “Anyone who works on the show doesn’t believe Joey is a puppet,” says Matthew, who has been involved in the National Theatre show for ten years. “We think of him as a real horse.”

It took a long period of research and development to capture the title character of Michael Morpurgo’s much-loved book set in the bloody trenches of World War I. In the original novel all the action is told from the perspective of Joey – a young horse eventually sold by his owner Ted to the army despite the protests of his son Albert. During the story Joey is taken across the lines, giving a glimpse of both sides of the conflict while Albert tries to catch up with him. Michael was inspired to write the original book in 1982 after a chance meeting with a World War I veteran who told the former Children’s Laureate about the horses on the battlefield.

“I think the horse telling the story resonates with young people,” Michael Morpurgo has said. “It goes across nationalities and cultures.” That said the book wasn’t a huge success on its initial publishing run – barely selling 1,000 copies.

It might have remained a cult favourite were it not for the mother of National Theatre associate director Tom Morris.

She heard Michael on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs talking about the book and was inspired to buy herself a copy as her father had been in the cavalry during World War I. She encouraged Tom to take it on as a project. And it soon made a mark – winning two Olivier Awards in 2007 and a further six Tony Awards on its transfer to Broadway. At the National Theatre it was seen by more than 234,000 people over two runs before transferring to the West End’s New London Theatre for seven years where it was

watched by another 2.9m people. Its National Theatre Live screening in February 2014 was watched simultaneously by a record-breaking 350,000 people worldwide. And Steven Spielberg adapted it into a film in 2012, starring Jeremy Irvine, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston and Emily Watson.

No-one was more surprised by War Horse’s success than the story’s original creator.

“I couldn’t see how it would play out,” he says of the original stage production. “It sounded kooky. I didn’t believe it, but two years later I had to believe it because there it was on stage.”

Part of what had attracted Tom to War Horse was the chance to work with Cape Town-based Handspring Puppets, who he had first seen performing Tall Horse – a show featuring a giraffe puppet operated by puppeteers on stilts.

Creating a puppet for War Horse posed its own challenges. “The horse needed to have riders on top of it,” says Matthew. “But the puppet needed to be light enough for the puppeteers to operate it. How do you match that solidity and lightness?” That challenge was handed to Handspring’s Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, who enlisted a brave neighbour to test out their lightweight prototype. The finished puppet’s body weighs 43kg, with the head an additional 7.7kg. It is made of cane, leather and tyvec – a material used in bookbinding which provides the mane and tail. The torso is reinforced with aluminium to allow a rider to be carried.

It takes new puppeteers eight weeks to learn how to operate Joey. Each has their own distinct responsibility to help bring Joey to life. The head puppeteer has to represent what the horse is looking at and what he is thinking. Triggers allow him to operate Joey’s ears – a major feature in horse body language. Similarly the heart operator is also responsible for the horse’s breathing, which can increase in frequency when Joey is scared or tired, and the hind operator uses the tail to underline emotions while also acting as a rudder for the animal.“The entire cast went out to see real horses,” says Matthew, who had first-hand experience having grown up near Epsom Downs. “It was important to make Joey act like a horse to make the audience respond accurately.”

There are a total of four three-strong horse teams, who control both Joey and his friend Topthorne. They can perform between six and seven shows a week. Each puppet also has its own technical team responsible for maintenance. “The show is built in front of you,” says Matthew. “When the audience engage with the show they suspend their disbelief – adults and children get so absorbed into it. One of the best experiences I ever had was when we took the show to South Africa in Johannesburg and Cape Town. We did performances for the children in the local townships who had never been to the theatre before. They were cheering and willing the horse on – it was incredible. Wherever it goes War Horse breaks everyone’s hearts – in a good way.” 

Good to know

War Horse is at the Brighton Centre in King’s Road from Thursday 25 January 2018 to Saturday 10 February 2018 at 7.30pm, with 2.30pm matinees on Saturdays, Wednesdays and Friday 26 January. Tickets from £20. 


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