When people play war horse

Updated: 2015-08-26 07:26

By Chen Jie(China Daily USA)

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A stage show about a boy's love for a farm animal that goes to battle presents unusual challenges for the actors, Chen Jie reports.

The thing about a war horse is that those who are keen to hold its reins need to be at absolute peace with one another.

Tommy Luther, a puppet show director, has long been convinced of that truth, and 16 months ago, when his mother asked him what he was looking for in casting characters for the play War Horse in China, his reply was swift.

"The puppeteers must have the ability to work well in a team, the sensibility to listen to one another, to be able to follow each other's suggestions, signals, ideas as well as to offer their own ideas, to lead sometimes."

That's all well and good, but having puppeteers who understand one another is as useful as a horse with just rear legs; they must also understand horses.

So all puppeteers performing in War Horse have the handbook titled How to Think Like a Horse. They also live on a farm for two weeks observing how horses move, breathe and think.

The play is based on a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo. It was first performed by the National Theatre of Britain at the Olivier Theatre in London in 2007 before it moved to the West End nearly two years later.

Luther, sticking rigidly to the ground rules he set on personal interaction, whittled a field of 1,000 applicants for roles as puppeteers to 19, and they have spent the past year training and rehearsing. Whether his high expectations on their human sense of purpose and their equine prowess have been met will become clear to audiences in Beijing when War Horse is performed from Sept 4 to Oct 31.

The Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg turned the World War I story about an English farm boy Albert and his beloved horse Joey into a movie of the same title in 2011. It became a box-office success and was nominated for six Oscar Awards, including for best picture.

Li Dong, a producer with the National Theater of China, says he first watched the play at the West End in August 2011 and was so impressed that he decided to bring it to China.

Two years later he returned to London to talk about a collaboration between the National Theater of China and the National Theatre of Britain and firmed up a proposal to make a Chinese version of War Horse, which has been staged in English, German and Dutch.

The biggest challenge for anyone putting on the play is coming to grips with the life-sized horse puppet created for it by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. It takes three actors to manipulate the 2.4-meters-tall horse, weighing 54 kilograms.

In January last year, the Chinese co-directors Wang Tingting and Liu Dan, the puppetry director Liu Xiaoyi and a team of technicians went to London to learn how to stage the play.

A couple of months later the National Theater of China began to scour China - the first time it has cast its net nationwide for audition candidates - looking for puppeteers for the piece. Of the 1,000 who auditioned, only about 50 came up to muster.

In April last year, Luther came to Beijing to choose the 19 finalists according to the rules he had set, then returned a couple of months ago to work with them for the premiere next month.

During a break in rehearsals recently, he told China Daily: "The first time you touch the puppet, the first time you try to manipulate the puppet, it's extremely difficult and it always looks a little ... strange. So it's very important to have focus, attention to detail, and to listen to each other and have no ego.

"It's an extraordinary experience in working with the actors. I was born in Portugal and trained in London, so I have a European mentality. For me, it's fresh and exciting to work with the Chinese actors including dancers, acrobats, Peking Opera performers, and they are from different regions of China.

"Every day is a fun day. We play games three or four times a day. During the games you can see the true spirit, the true personalities come out."

Liu Xiaoyi, who manipulates Joey's head and trains the Chinese puppeteers when Luther is not in China, says that when you work with puppeteers "the first thing to teach them is to make the puppet breathe".

"We work out the actual walk of the horse," says Liu, who is a dancer and choreographer and is the play's puppetry director.

"There is a certain rhythm, a certain point where a part of the horse has to pick up a step, otherwise it doesn't look right. So we slowly find every tiny movement, such as when a horse is frightened or worried."

Language barriers have been another challenge. Alex Sims, the director, says the script presents certain linguistic problems.

"The shape of the story is the same, but we have to work on the translation, the script and the songs, to make it resonate with Chinese audiences. We are lucky to have wonderful translators who retain the show's funny and touching points in a way that Chinese people can understand.

"The great thing about the horse is that it is unpredictable and spontaneous, so each performance will be entirely different. We have the idea of the shape of the show but don't simply come here to make a copy. We work with fresh actors and create a new show with them.

"Chinese actors bring their own ideas, so it will be entirely original and unique because of the personalities."

The horse puppet is unique and the emotional experience of the play is unique, Sims says, and he wants Chinese audiences to be able to connect with the play emotionally.

Zhou Yuyuan, president of the National Theater of China, says: "With War Horse we are not simply co-producing a play. The National Theater of Britain has taught us a great deal about staging techniques, theater management and actor training."

The play will be staged in Shanghai from Nov 15 to Jan 17 and in Guangzhou from March 8 to May 3.

Contact the writer at chenjie@chinadaily.com.cn

When people play war horse

 When people play war horse

Top: It takes three actors to manipulate the lifesize horse in the playWar Horse. Above: Tommy Luther (pictured) the play's puppetry director sets rigid ground rules for training the performers. Photos By Jiang Dong / China Daily

(China Daily USA 08/26/2015 page8)