War Horse, the unforgettable theatrical event from the National Theatre of Great Britain, based on Michael Morpurgo’s beloved novel, makes a trimpuhant return to Australian shores this year. With seasons at Regent Theatre, Melbourne from this weekend, followed by Lyric Theatre, Sydney from 15 February; and then across to Crown Theatre in Perth from 24 March. It’s thrilling that finally Australians on both sides of the country get the chance to experience this breathtaking production. Winning an impressive list of awards including, Tony Award for Best Play. War Horse is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s remarkable story of courage, loyalty and friendship; This powerfully moving and imaginative drama is a show of phenomenal inventiveness, filled with stirring music and songs, featuring ground-breaking puppetry work by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company.
Gareth Aled serves the puppetry director on the production, he is a 2010 Royal Welsh College Of Music & Drama, and since 2012 has a close relationship with the work. I got chance to speak to him, in amongst his busy schedule preparing of the new Australian productions opening this weekend in Melbourne.
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Joshua: Gareth, Thank you for speaking with us,
Gareth: Not at all,
Joshua: I guess. So the first question I have is what has been your involvement in the development of the work until this production here in Australia.?
Gareth: I saw the production for the first time in 2011, on the West End, then I auditioned at the end of 2012 and joining the cast as the head of Joey for two and a half years. I’ve returned as a puppetry director in the last year and a half.
Joshua: What do you think keeps audiences coming back to warhorse?
Gareth: I think it is something incredible powerful. The puppetry is amazing. It really is, as are the other components to the story, the lighting, the sound score, the folk songs, the set, the costumes, but War Horse, the alchemy of it all, somehow it’s an evening that’s greater than the sum of its parts. I think, an incredibly moving. That’s part of it. I also think there’s something about the neutrality the animal. You’ve got a story set with the backdrop of the First World War, and the neutrality of the animal – doesn’t understand English, French German the horse doesn’t engage with the politics of human conflict. The horse responds to tone intonation, good behavior and kindness and vulnerability. And that bond between human and horse is such a big part of our history. I think that’s part of why it’s such an incredible theatre.
Joshua: Bit of a long one; Do you think the artists work is ever truly done given the long list of remounts that it’s had have elements of the product have changed and developed around the world? Or is this show remained almost identical since the National Theatre?
Gareth: That’s a brilliant question, show has a very strong through line from the original production at the National to this one, but at the same time, the work is constantly developing from every department and so I’m very aware as a director, that a bad version of directing, I think, certainly in a show that’s already had a previous life is to tell them exactly how to do it. Now, of course, there has to be a structure that we need to know that, you know, you’re going to be lit in that particular part of stage in that particular time, there are obviously there’s a framework that. For me, it’s about handing over, encouraging a company of people to develop a path for it. And take a look at the work and I get to facilitate that from the perspective of puppetry. When it comes to Joey, if an actor delivers a line differently, for example, or changes volume, or direct eye contact with the puppet, our puppeteer will respond differently. Because a horse would respond differently to different physicality, a different tone, a different intonation at different proximity.
Joshua: Do you think there’s been a different response across the generations?
Gareth: I think this play does have a broad appeal in terms of age range. And we get to tour all over the world, and so we get to see and witness the response. Culturally how that’s different in terms of the relationship between a human and a horse or a human and an animal, or perhaps the first war itself. But it’s something about the puppetry, the fact that something is living and breathing and thinking and feeling and the fragility vulnerability of that life, I think it doesn’t matter where we are on the planet, or doesn’t matter what or who that person is in terms of their life experience, to play seems to captivate and engage, and move people deeply. And that’s been an amazing thing to witness and be a part of.
Joshua: How long does the process from getting those actors into the space to actually delivering that work take?
Gareth: So, the experience is two intense workshop auditions, doing maybe four hours a session, and doing lots of work puppetry work, you get up, work with inanimate objects, like industrial sheets of paper, apply lots of our puppetry principles to those inanimate objects, and convince us of it’s life. Once cast, It’s a 10 week rehearsal process. In 10 weeks we have few weeks of puppetry school where just the puppeteers will come together to begin their work, then six weeks of full company rehearsals, and then another couple of weeks technical rehearsals before a puppeteer would go on stage for the first time. But it’s a bit like passing your driving test, you know, when you pass your driving test, you’re absolutely safe and ready to be on the road. But you’re by no means an experienced driver yet. And I think it’s similar with almost you know, by the time you perform in front of an audience, you’re absolutely ready to tell the story in this detailed way and to be safe and clear and work together in a really fantastic way.
Joshua: I think theatre, and art is the kind of thing we need; given everything going on right now with the fires. So thank you to your company for what you’re doing.
Gareth: No, not at all. It’s a real privilege to be here with everything going on, we just hope that even in tiny, tiny way we can, help lift, in terms of storytelling, it’s always important and crucial, so in our tiny way we’re really happy to be here and help.
Joshua: Thank you so much for your time. Best wishes for your season.
Gareth: Not at all.
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War Horse opens Jan 10, Regent Theatre Melbourne before touring Nationally.