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Bringing War Horse to life at The Mayflower
IT has been seen by almost five million people worldwide and performed across the globe from the West End to Broadway.
The moving portrayal of the horrors of the First World War has been watched by A-list celebrities and royalty including the Queen herself.
Last night saw the blockbuster War Horse take to the stage in Southampton as the curtain went up on the opening night.
The National Theatre production involves the best in technical and sound engineering involving a talented company of 35 actors, some of whom have graced the big and small screen.
But when all is said and done War Horse is all about the puppets.
The skill of bringing what should be a cumbersome heavy “costume” to life as a horse, reliving its epic journey through the unrelenting Great War rests on the shoulders of a trio of actors who literally become the animal.
Beginning with the breathing and working through all the movements and encapsulating the personality of the beast as they work in perfect union, is the job of the men who make up the horses – the undoubted stars of the show.
They start life as a frame made up of cane, leather and a material used in book-binding, for the manes and tails. The torso is reinforced with aluminium and able to carry a rider on top.
Each weighs in the region of ten stone and require three strapping men to manoeuvre it.
Your average actor training doesn’t usually extend to perfecting the movement of a hind leg or straining your vocal chords to exactly mimic the tone and depth of a horse’s neigh.
The sound like everything else is done in complete synchronisation by the trio who play Joey – the star of War Horse.
Each of the three-man team is responsible for a different part of the animal – Joey’s head, heart and hind.
Another trio make up the same components for Topthorn – the other horse puppet in the show.
The trio playing Joey are Thomas Gilbey (the head), Michael Humphreys (the heart) and Andrew Keay (the hind).
Andrew said: “It is hard to share a character all together, so it is lucky we all get along.
“It is such an amazing show in so many different ways the best part is the audience’s reactions.”
The cast, including the puppeteers, are more than well aware of the pull of the horse, with Joey himself receiving the biggest applause almost every night.
Tom added: “You know you have done your job well when we do bows. We do them as actors but the best thing is when we bring Joey out for his bow and the crowd goes wild.
“They are not really clapping us, they have really bought into this character. They believe in Joey as a separate character.”
So consumed are they that they even admit to making horse noises as they sleep.
Such are the demands of the role, the puppeteers start their training well before the whole company begins rehearsals. The puppeteers also have their own physio team to keep them in good shape for the roles.
Puppetry director Matt Forbes said: “It is a very physical role and demanding one. Each of the three roles requires different attributes like core strength and flexibility or upper body strength. That is where the extra training comes in.
“Operating the horses themselves takes a lot of skill as elastics and mechanisms representing the different tendons and muscles in the legs. It is a skill to master and perform in complete synchronisation.
“The actors can’t talk to each other at all during the performance so they must have that understanding of whatever they do, they do it together.”
The “horse” itself is on the receiving end of some tender loving care with its own “tech” team’ ensuring it, like any thoroughbred, is in tip top condition for each and every performance on its current national tour.
War Horse is set to play to virtually sell out crowds in Southampton during its run until March 15 Only a handful of tickets remain with standing tickets virtually the only ones left.
Mayflower spokesman Robin Hancox said: “It has been incredibly popular and it will be just so fantastic to see the theatre almost completely full night after night.”