The National Theatre’s extraordinary adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse returns to the Hippodrome this autumn.
The inspiration for Morpurgo’s best-selling children’s novel, latterly made into a spectacular piece of theatre, was a conversation in the pub of his small Devon village over 30 years ago.
“Sitting in front of the fire was an old gentleman from the village and, just making conversation, I said to him ‘I hear you went to the First World War as a young man’,” Morpurgo recalls. “He said, ‘I was 17. I was there with horses,’ and started talking about his time there.
“One thing he told me, which touched me enormously, was that his best friend on the front line was his horse because he could tell that horse stuff that he never dared talk about with his chums. Like the terror and horror of what they’d seen that day and his longing for home. This old bloke said to me – ‘that horse listened’.”
Intrigued, Morpurgo subsequently learned from the Imperial War Museum that around a million horses left these islands to fight in the Great War – and that some 65,000 returned. “So I thought, ‘there’s an extraordinary story here’. Although there were lots of stories about the War, all from one side or the other, no one seemed to have told the story from a neutral position. I thought the horse could tell the story.”
Morpurgo wrote War Horse back in 1982. It wasn’t until the mid 2000s, though, that the author received a call from Tom Morris (now Bristol Old Vic’s artistic director – back then associate director at the National Theatre), who said that, after their success with His Dark Materials, the NT were looking for a project involving a wonderful puppet company called Handspring – and that they were interested in War Horse.
The result was the NT’s memorable production of Morpurgo’s powerful story, about a young boy called Albert and his beloved horse, Joey, who has been requisitioned to fight for the British in World War I. Caught in enemy crossfire, Joey ends up serving on both sides during the war before landing in No Man’s Land, while Albert, not old enough to enlist, embarks on a treacherous mission to find his horse and bring him home.
A remarkable tale of courage, loyalty and friendship, War Horse features ground-breaking puppetry work by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, which brings breathing and galloping horses to life on stage.
Actor Simon Victor (pictured top), who studied at both the University of Bristol and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, plays Captain Stewart in the NT production. Here he is to tell us more.
Give us an insight into life in the War Horse rehearsal room. Were rehearsals high-octane or relaxed? Any characters among the company?
With 34 in the cast including 12 horse puppeteers as well as numerous creative team members, it was a busy rehearsal room but the buzz was like nothing else I’ve experienced. Everywhere you looked people were working on characters or getting to know each other. We rehearsed in an old Tate and Lyle factory in Greenwich. The puppeteers came together two weeks before the rest of the cast – which was amazing because when we arrived, there was a real sense of needing to step up and work as hard as they had already been working. They were learning a new skill, after all.
Very quickly it was obvious why some of the actors had been chosen, they fit into their roles so wonderfully.
Tell us about Captain Stewart and his role in the story.
Captain Stewart… some see him as the life and soul of any party! I think that’s because he’s very gung-ho, cocksure, etc. I think there’s a confidence verging on arrogance. What I like about him is his determination and loyalty. He will do anything to survive and his relationships within the play with Major Nicholls, Billy and his horse Topthorn show that camaraderie is important to him.
What do you put War Horse’s enormous success down to?
The creative team. Their meticulous work during workshops and early rehearsals helped build the solid foundation for this show to last for years.
I also think that, because it’s a period we all think we know so much about, to see these very individual characters with very emotional stories on stage and close up is more enlightening than what we knew already.
Tell us about your experiences at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and the University.
The Theatre School was an amazing experience for me, because it was the first time in my adult life when I knew I was doing exactly what I wanted to do – and I was doing it all day, every day. They worked us very hard, a perfect preparation for life in this industry.
At uni, I wasn’t sure about life yet. I’d applied to the RAF and passed all the aptitude tests to be a fighter pilot but they wanted me to go to university first. So I did. So for me, university seemed like simply a necessity before joining the forces.
In the end, I joined the Bristol University Officer Training Corps instead and trained to be an officer for three years. At the end of the training I watched a lot of my friends join the Army. They’re all currently moving from Captain to Major, which has influenced my performance hugely. To be able to portray an officer having not only trained to be one but seen friends go out to Afghanistan and command troops is a huge responsibility and honour.
I think inside all of us – certainly inside me – is a desire to serve this country and to give something back. Growing up and remembering the fallen became a huge part of my life with parades through Bristol city centre on Remembrance Day. I hope this show helps to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our futures.
War Horse returns to the Hippodrome from Wed, Oct 18 to Sat, Nov 11. For more info and to book tickets, visit www.atgtickets.com/shows/war-horse/bristol-hippodrome
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