The National Theatre of Great Britain will be presenting the Hong Kong premiere of its award-winning production War Horse.
Based on the beloved novel by British author Michael Morpurgo, the play follows the experiences of Joey, a horse that has been sold to the British Army’s cavalry to fight in World War I. Joey is taken from England to France, where he finds himself running through No Man’s Land behind enemy lines and under heavy fire. Meanwhile, Joey’s owner and best friend Albert, who is too young to enlist, embarks on a treacherous personal mission to bring him home.
The book was first published in 1982, but only gained widespread popularity when it was adapted for stage, premiering at the National Theatre in 2007, and was later adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Since then, the play has gone on to win a roster of awards including two Olivier Awards and five Tony Awards including Best Play. The world tour of War Horse has so far been seen by eight million people in 98 towns and cities and 11 countries, and Hong Kong is its latest stop.
Key to success of the play was the use of life-sized puppets by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa — who made the 23 puppets that appear in the show — and Tony Sedgewick’s “horse choreography.”
The star of the show is the noble steed Joey, who on stage is puppeteered by three people — Tom Quinn (head), Lewis Howard (heart), and Samuel Parker (hind). The trio spent eight weeks training, including the basics of puppetry, before getting into the actual puppet.
Coconuts HK attended a sneak preview of the play hours ahead of its opening night in Hong Kong, and spoke to the trio who bring Joey to life.
On how they first discovered War Horse and what attracted them to the play
Tom (Head): I’d seen the film many years ago when that came out, but I’ve always been a fan of Michael Morpurgo and his writing, so I’ve read several of his other books as well. He’s a fantastic writer and a great storyteller, and I think a play like this – especially in the times we’ve just had, obviously with the anniversary of the end of the first World War, it’s really been a sort of special experience being a part of it now.
Lewis (Heart): I saw the play when it first came out, so it would have been 10 years ago before I got the job, and I think I read it at school before that, and I’d never seen the film, since I’ve been in it I’ve chosen not to watch it.
Samuel (Hind): Likewise, I saw the play when it was in London at the London Theatre, and I completely fell in love with the puppetry. I’ve done a bit of puppetry beforehand, so it was, it’s kinda regarded as one of the top pieces of theater that includes puppetry at the foreground of it. So yeah, I completely fell in love with it, so it was always kinda my dream show to be a part of because it involved that so heavily.
On what they did to prepare for the play
L: We’ve done lots of research into how horses move as animals, so we spent a lot of time looking at horses and observing them, and researching their anatomy and behavior. So that’s the starting point and then we learn how the puppet works physically, so the mechanics of the object, so it’s slowly introducing the aspects of the horse’s behavior, its movements, and making them emotional and not mechanical.
How they communicate with each other on stage
T: I think in order to try and make us all link together, we all use breath in order to communicate, because normally we’re all wearing mics and microphones, so the audience will be able to hear if we’re just talking each other and telling each other where to go. So we have to use, as if you’d want to stand up normally you’d have to take a [deep breath] and that’s how we communicate together whilst we’re on stage.
On what to do when things go wrong while trapped inside a horse puppet
L: Yeah, things can go wrong when you’re learning. Now it seems easy, but the mistakes we’ve made before you think you’d never make again. Even mistakes we made in the first week you can’t take for granted, because the puppet is still a very difficult thing to operate and you can never get complacent. So yeah, some things happen — occasionally people might fall over and because there’s three of you, if one of you fall over and the other two are standing up, that could be quite an odd feeling. It’s not like you all fall over and the horse falls, you have to make it look like the horse is fine, nothing’s gone wrong.
S: We have each a world that we have to operate individually. So at the beginning we all concentrated on our part of the horse, so the transition from getting to what I was doing physically and what Lewis and what Tom is doing, then those things joining up was the most interesting, because you make a mistake that just affected you, but the other two might not know it has happened. Whereas now if something happens with either two of the team, I kind of know, so your awareness gets bigger, and it involves each other more now — which is nice because you get to enjoy each other’s mistakes more.
On which part of Joey is the hardest to puppeteer
L: The democratic answer is that they’re all difficult for different reasons. I think mine is the most difficult [laughs] because being the middle of the horse, I’m like a translator between the head puppeteer and the hind puppeteer, so I can feel a lot more of what the hind puppeteer is doing, movement-wise, and have to communicate that to the head puppeteer. And likewise, if the head puppeteer is going in a certain direction and the hind can’t necessarily see them, I have to steer. That’s what I find the most difficult. Not saying it is the most difficult, but I find it the most difficult.
T: I suppose as the head I’ve got no real input into the actual direction that the horse is moving, but I have to try and make it look like it was my idea [laughs]. So I’ve always got to try and be one step ahead of these guys, trying to read all their tiny little cues and all this stuff, and I guess they’re doing the same for me as well.
S: And obviously for me it’s the hardest because I’m at the back of the queue, because obviously we talk about the drive of the horse coming from the back, so I have to make it look like everything Tom does at the front is also completely echoed from the back of the horse to unify each end. I also can’t see a lot of what Tom does, because Lewis is in front of me, and the rest of the horse is covering my vision, so a lot of what I do is done on feel and sound, so obviously that’s why it’s most difficult to be behind.
If they could trade places for the day, which part of Joey would they play?
L: That’s a really good question!
T: Ah, I wouldn’t want to!
L: If I had to do one for the day, I think I’d try hind, because at least I’ve already been inside the horse, so maybe there’s more transferable skills? Slightly? From going heart to hind.
T: If I had to do one for a day … I don’t know if I’d fit in the back! Probably the heart because I’m starting the count, I think by starting a walking movement would be easier for my brain to work!
War Horse is on from May 10; Tues-Fri 7:45pm; Sat 2pm and 7:45pm; and Sun 1pm and 6pm at Lyric Theatre, The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Wan Chai
HK$395 to HK$1,245