War Horse

I’ve never done this before and it will probably be a long time before I do it again. One of my favorite co-bloggers, Will Rycroft of Just William’s Luck is an actor currently appearing in War Horse, a National Theatre production that has moved to the West End. It is also on the short list for the Olivier Audience award — the only non-musical — and I’d love you to cast a vote (do it here.) I love theatre (as you probably know) and asked Will to tell us what it was like being in the cast of a West End show that has attracted the Queen and others. Will did a post on his experience (click here for more pictures ) and I, without shame, repeat it here. It is a wonderful summary of what it is like to be an actor in a truly great production. And it deserves to win that Olivier award, so please (cheat) and cast your vote.

Fellow blogger Kevin From Canada asked if I would write a post about the production I am currently appearing in, War Horse. He was intrigued to know what it is like to be a part of such a successful show. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, a little background first. War Horse is a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, former children’s Laureate. Written from the point of view of the horse, Joey, it tells the story of how he becomes part of the cavalry in the First World War and the lengths to which the boy who helped to raise him will go to to be reunited with him. The National Theatre in conjunction with Handspring Puppet Company adapted the book into a play which was successful enough to be revived the following Christmas and then transfer into the West End where it continues to run at the New London Theatre. The show has become famous because of its extraordinary puppets, most notably the life-size horses which are controlled by three actors. I’ll tell you first a little bit about the machinations behind the show and then what it’s actually like to do each night.

As I mentioned, each horse puppet requires three actors to operate it, called the Head, Heart and Hind. The head operator is outside the horse, supporting the head and controlling its movement and that of the ears too. The Heart is inside the horse operating the front legs and creating the breathing of the animal with the rise and fall of the body which they are helping to support. Finally, the Hind, controls the back legs and movement of the tail, working together with the Heart to support the weight of anyone that happens to ride the horse (that’s right, at the end of the day if someone’s rides that horse they’re sitting on the shoulders of two actors). With two horses in the show and the physical demands placed on the actors who make them live there are actually four horse teams in the cast who rotate through the weeks of the run to help stave off injury. In theory that is. With the inevitable injuries that crop up and the days of holiday that have to be taken during the long run, horse teams inevitably end up getting a bit mixed up and having to swap in and out of various configurations. One of the wonders of the show is the way the horse teams work together to create a convincing experience for the audience. Part of this is also due to the latitude that exists for them within performance. This isn’t choreography; with the same kind of intentions and actions as any other actor on stage they are acting and reacting to what they receive from others. For those of us working with them onstage it really can be as unpredictable as breaking that old maxim and working with animals.

The horses are like a microcosm of the show as a whole as holiday and illness mean that at any one time there will be at least two or three members of the cast off. Before each show begins the cast will assemble and a list of ‘knock-ons’ will be read out in which parts and the minutiae of the show will be allocated. Now, I’ve said parts there, but I don’t want you to think that this is some kind of theatre collective where we all know everything and just swap them around. Every part has a first and second cover so that no matter what the disaster, the show will go on (just last week we had three people away on holiday and two off sick for one show and yet we managed to make it all happen), but for those little elements of movement work or prop and scenery moving performed by the cast there is definitely an all hands to the pump kind of feel. The constant changes in this vein mean that there are hardly ever two shows that are the same, which of course helps to keep it interesting, and to keep the cast focused of course.

Genuine West End feet during the pre-show meeting.

Much is made of the word ‘ensemble’ with some shows but I can proudly say that in no other show I’ve worked on has the word been so appropriately used. A cast of 31 actors helps to make that show happen each night, everyone an absolutely integral part of the story, no big names amongst the cast and everyone, and I mean absolutely everyone, playing multiple roles and getting their hands dirty (I mean this literally as we have to slather ourselves in ‘mud’ for those battle scenes and I still haven’t managed to find a really effective way of getting rid of it from all the nooks and crannies). I mention this only because a quick look at a few other shows in the West End might lead you to believe that the only chance of commercial success is to place a few well-known TV faces in the cast, they don’t even have to be actors necessarily, and watch the bookings come in. We may have strength in numbers but there is something very encouraging about the extended runs, the full houses, and the rapturous reception which accompanies a show which focuses on the story and the creativity required to tell it rather than any celebrity.

So what’s it like to be in a 5-star West End smash-hit (he asked himself smugly)? There are several things that are remarkable. A show that is selling well is obviously a joy to be in. Performing in front of a half-empty theatre can be demoralising, not to mention much harder work. The New London holds around 1100 people and to see that theatre full, night after night, is something I’m trying not to take for granted. The response from an audience that size to a show that is as emotional as ours can be quite overwhelming. To see members of the audience standing at the end is not a very English thing and yet we had a week of shows last week when people stood every night, tears coursing down faces, smiles stretching from ear to ear. The tears. With a stage that bulges out into the audience so much and lighting that illuminates the first seven or eight rows I can see perfectly well the reactions of people to the play’s final few scenes. It’s quite hard to keep focus actually when you can see people grabbing onto partners arms or hiding behind tear-stained hankies. I’ve even seen people start crying in the plays opening moments leading me to worry about the risk of dehydration by the end of the play’s two-and-a-half hour running time.

You may well have heard about the Queen’s recent visit to the show. To have an unofficial visit like that was extraordinary. We knew on the day that she would be coming but the audience did not of course and it wasn’t until the end of the first half that many of them twigged who exactly it was sitting in row K next to someone who looked remarkably like Prince Philip. I happened to be playing Captain Stewart that night which meant that I finished the first half mounted on horseback, sword in hand, charging right at her. Now that doesn’t happen every day. Her daughter Princess Anne has already been to see the show and we have since been visited by Prince William so if The Prince Of Wales is reading, we just need you for a Royal Flush. This has helped to increase interest in the show even further of course and that is why the run has recently been extended into 2011. I mentioned the lack of celebrities on stage; the fact is that the celebrities tend to be in the audience and we have a list on the wall of some of the famous faces to have been spotted. A list like that often has some comedy amendments made to it, ridiculously famous people who haven’t really seen the show, but recently it’s been difficult to know for sure which is which. Just last week we were visited by Morgan Freeman no less and last night we had a visit which turned one of the long standing jokes amongst actors all over the country into reality. Many times on a show it has been joked amongst a cast that ‘Spielberg is in tonight.’ Well, last night he was. I know. Ridiculous. And do you want to know the punchline? I’m away on holiday this week. My moment with Spielberg will have to wait (He’s here as part of preparations for his film version of War Horse).

So, a show that keeps packing audiences in, celebrities and all, for the foreseeable future, a show that keeps everyone honest and doing something a little different every night, a show that manages to make audiences laugh, cry, gasp and applaud; that’s the kind of show you always dream being a part of, so I’m a very lucky chap, no doubt about it, and very pleased to be remaining with the company as the show extends its run. I hope this has given you an idea of what it’s like to be a part of it but please feel free to ask any questions you want in the comment section below. I’m off now to find out Morgan Freeman’s number. He needs to explain to Spielberg what, or rather who, was missing from the show last night.

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17 Responses to “War Horse”

  1. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    What a remarkable post. Its fascinating to read of your experiences in a West End show- a real insiders viewpoint. The puppets sound amazing- although very difficult to get right I would think.

    Thanks for publishing !

  2. Trevor Says:

    My vote is cast! Sherry and I watched the clips from the production a few months ago, and we hope to see it soon!

  3. alison Says:

    I voted too. It sounds wonderful

  4. William Rycroft Says:

    Thanks for making this available to others Kevin, I’m glad to see some have already enjoyed it. The link to further pictures didn’t seem to work however so here is a link to the original post if you’d like to see those:
    http://justwilliamsluck.blogspot.com/2010/02/war-horse-view-from-onstage.html

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sorry about the technical glitch in the link — I think I have fixed it but will leave the address in your comment nonetheless. Your story is an excellent one — and I’ll be cheering for you.

  6. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    I voted too!

  7. Isabel Says:

    Great insights. I loved hearing that a lot of people are enjoying this play!!!

    I also like the description of how the horse works.

    Thanks for having this post.

  8. m e dorval Says:

    A most interesting post with an insider’s perspective. My head, heart and hind hope to be in the West End to see the play when it wins.
    (vote cast)

  9. Mrs. Berrett Says:

    Fabulous post! I’m a little upset Trevor forgot to mention this to me! And Captain Stewart? How very lucky! Topthorn was one of my favorite characters!

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks to all for both the votes and the comments — I am very glad that I reproduced Will’s original post and introduced some new readers to it. I think it is a very special account of a most interesting experience.

    Whatever happens with the Olivier Audience Award, I can’t help but think that someone is going to figure out a way to mount this show in New York and it certainly would seem to be a welcome addition to theatre there.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m glad the run’s been extended, because despite my wishes (and my promise to Kevin which I’ve not forgotten) I’ve not managed to get any yet. Booked until October I was recently told. Congratulations.

    But, I’m sure I’ll manage to pick up tickets eventually, until then (and indeed after then) best of luck with the run and thanks for a fascinating post.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Please return with your thoughts on the show when you do get to see it. Kevin.

  13. sarah Says:

    Really intersting to read this – thanks for taking the time to write it. I have a question – how many changes were made to the show when it moved to the New London? I saw it at the National and then last night at the N.L and it seemed different. No strobes for example when the guys are blown off the horses and other differences. Can’t figure if it seemed different because I saw it before or because I was sitting in the circle rather than the stalls !

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hi Sarah: I can’t answer your question because I am not the author of the post — I repeated it from Will Rycroft’s blog (he is the actor who wrote it). You can check out the original at his blog here: http://justwilliamsluck.blogspot.com/

    and he does stop by here regularly.

  15. chantel adams Says:

    Great play, looks like alot of effort was put into it. Was lovely to see. Was very smart thinking.

  16. kimbofo Says:

    Just wanted to say I saw this last night at the New London Theatre, where the play is now running, and it was truly wonderful! Sadly, Will wasn’t performing last night (just my luck; we’d been planning to meet up beforehand), so it was a shame not to see him in action.

    The puppetry is amazing — the horses look so lifelike you can practically see them breathing. Their ears twitch, they paw the ground, they ninny when they are afraid — everything about them looks so REAL. I can’t believe that some of the actors actually ride the things — I’m too scared to get up on a real horse, but I don’t think the puppet ones look much safer. The teamwork — and the trust — between the actors is simply astonishing.

    I note that the theatre is now accepting bookings up until February 2013! But I wouldn’t wait that long to see it; get your tickets while you can, it’s too good to miss.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: Thanks for bringing Will’s post back up to the top of the comment list — it remains one of my favorites and, with the movie now attracting attention, it is great to again contemplate the live show. Some of us are old enough to remember that the New London Theatre was home to Cats (Mrs. KfC and I did see that one there) — I’d say that War Horse will be keeping it filled with theatre-goers for some time to come.

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