Matt Forbes, The Puppetry Director of the National Theatre’s War Horse takes us behind the scenes of the hit West End stage show
The National Theatre’s acclaimed stage adaptation will embark on a UK tour from September 2017. We talked to Matt Forbes, Puppetry Director, about his role in creating an unforgettable theatre experience….
Can you describe what your role as Puppetry Director involves?
It starts with casting and training and goes all the way up to preparing for opening-night. Every time we change venue, I make sure the show is kept at the high quality typical of the National Theatre. Touring is of massive importance to the theatre, so when we’re taking shows out of London we want to make sure audiences get the same experience they would if they came to the West End.
Do you still operate Joey?
I’m very lucky as I do still get to do a bit of both [behind-the-scenes and operating the puppets]. During rehearsal I “get back into horse”, as we say, to help demonstrate certain techniques. Joey has met more heads of state, members of the Royal Family and celebrities than most West End stars – he does a lot of promotional work around the UK – so I often end up doing that too.
How precisely is War Horse choreographed?
We spend two weeks with the puppeteers where we work solely on bringing the horses to life, teaching them how to walk, trot and gallop, and all of the smaller movements that horses have. We start with that basic foundation and from there we choreograph the show. Some parts are very choreographed, mainly for safety – we have to make sure that in certain sections they know exactly where they’re going and what they’re doing…
For instance, when Albert is riding Joey…?
Yes, when Albert’s on top and also when Joey gets caught in the barbed wire and during the big charging sequences, when there are lots of people on stage. There are three people operating that horse so we have to make sure they’re working together. That said, we always tell the puppeteers to stay true to the horse. While they know they have to come on from stage left and go off stage right, the middle bit is up for improvisation. The puppeteers aren’t able to talk to each other, so they have to work together and use that basic foundation to stay connected. The last thing we want is the head going one way and the bum going another!
Are they ever allowed to let Joey misbehave?
Absolutely. We now have four horse teams within the show. In a week of eight shows, each team will do four shows “in horse”, so the actors and the audience are constantly getting a fresh show. Each team has its own take on Joey – its own personality – so some Joeys end up being cheekier than others, which is great!
What about War Horse is so special for you?
It’s a beautiful story – about peace and friendship and loyalty. Yes, it’s called War Horse but war is merely the backdrop. It’s a story about a boy and his horse and their love for each other. As an audience, you can’t help but get emotionally involved. People really engage with these puppets, which, five seconds in, look like real horses and you don’t think of them as puppets any more. The puppeteers almost vanish.
Is that why audiences enjoy it so much?
I think so. And let’s not forget that during this tour we’ll be commemorating the centenary of the end of the First World War, so that’s extremely poignant. Being able to share this story of peace and loyalty during such a big year is amazing.
What excites you most about the UK tour?
Bringing it to audiences, without a doubt. Sharing this incredible theatrical event is brilliant and getting as many people to see it as possible is fantastic.
War Horse will be touring the UK from 17 September 2017 to 2 February 2019. Visit warhorseonstage.com to see full tour dates and find out about our War Horse VIP experience at the Bristol Hippodrome on 18 October.