William Flew and War Horse

April 10, 2011 § 4 Comments

After record profits in London, the National Theatre play opens on Broadway next week. William Flew tells William Flew how he gambled and won

We are in uncharted waters because this is not a musical. There have been plays that have run a long time, but not on this scale, I suspect

One January day in 2005 the director of the National Theatre found himself in a rehearsal studio with two South African puppeteers, watching four actors run round in circles with cardboard boxes on their heads.

MARK ELLIDGE / OLIVIER THEATREAn equine creation for War Horse tended by Craig Leo, one of the original puppeteers for the National Theatre’s production of the Michael Morpurgo novelThus began Sir Nicholas Hytner’s serious involvement with War Horse, a largely forgotten children’s book that became a play that is now the most commercially successful production in the National’s history.

For the past two years the story of a boy and his horse in the First World War has been playing to full houses in the West End. Audiences have wept, cheered and gasped at its boldest moments, such as a company of cavalrymen thundering towards German machineguns on six horses supported by eighteen puppeteers.

Next Thursday a new production opens on Broadway, the first step in a planned international programme that could sustain the National for years. Performances are selling out on both sides of the Atlantic and the box office is likely to be boosted by the opening of a Steven Spielberg film version next Christmas. Already it is making more than £2.5 million a year profit, equivalent to half the National’s annual actors’ budget. Its revenues are helping to finance an ambitious creative programme and a rebuilding scheme.

Sir Nicholas, sitting in a National Theatre office looking out at the pink evening sun on the Thames and St Paul’s Cathedral, is happy to acknowledge that his first glimpse of War Horse was unpromising.

“I could kind of see what they were up to,” he says, giggling at the memory of the cardboard boxes. “But they did do it for an awful long time.”

When public funding of the arts is under the microscope, the National has suffered a 15 per cent cut in its Arts Council grant and more than 200 arts organisations have lost theirs altogether, the first workshop symbolises the risks that only the subsidised theatre sector can afford to take. It took three years of development and the equivalent of £3 million in investment to turn a creative hunch into an award-winning production.

With War Horse, Sir Nicholas says, “we are in uncharted waters, because this is not a musical. It behaves like one [in its audience response and commercial performance] but it’s not. There have been plays that have run a long time but not on this scale, I suspect.”

Nick Starr, the National’s executive director, thinks that he understands why War Horse connects deeply with people. “I have a theory that the act of turning the puppets into horses is precisely the act of enjoying theatre.”

The story begins with a novel by Michael Morpurgo, the former Children’s Laureate, in 1982. “ War Horse wasn’t one of my favourite ones,” Morpurgo says by telephone from New York, where he has just attended a gala performance of the play with Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, and Henry Kissinger.

“It disappointed me. It was my first book that was nominated for the Whitbread Prize and it didn’t win. It was only moderately well reviewed and then it just resided on my backlist, not doing particularly much at all. It was always my wife’s favourite and that’s deeply annoying because it was about 60 books ago. I don’t know why my publisher kept it in print. It was only selling 2,000 copies in a good year.”

War Horse was rescued from obscurity because one of those copies was bought by the mother of Tom Morris, the co-director, who had nurtured Jerry Springer: The Opera at Battersea and runs the Bristol Old Vic. He took it with him when he flew to Cape Town with Starr in September 2004. The play they had gone to scout was wrong for the National but they were bewitched by the central character, a 16ft giraffe made by the Handspring puppet company. They decided to find a different story for which they could use Handspring, and War Horse suggested itself.

Sir Nicholas was sufficiently intrigued to agree to a week of workshops at the National Theatre Studio by the Old Vic. Marianne Elliott was appointed director and after two years of development previews began in the autumn of 2007.

Advance bookings were poor. “The first preview was honestly not good,” Sir Nicholas says. “The audience did not enjoy it. Morpurgo was depressed by it. Nick Starr was pissed off.”

Over the next two weeks Elliott and Morris cut an hour and a half, dumping scenes, characters, puppets, songs and lots of German dialogue. Sir Nicholas has “never seen a show go from audience absolutely not enjoying it to audience absolutely loving it so dramatically in previews”. The reviews were ecstatic and tickets sold out. The Times called it “a piece of work so exhilarating that it makes you rejoice to be alive”.

A run the following year sold out too and Starr secured a West End transfer to the New London Theatre, with the National retaining commercial control. Two years on, advance bookings stand at £4 million.

The Queen has seen the show, as have Sir Michael Caine, Dame Helen Mirren, Will Smith, Spielberg and Sir Ian McKellen.

Meanwhile, the puppeteers have needed shin splints and have experienced repetitive strain injury, twisted spines and strangely developed muscles, such as that at the base of the thumb from twitching the horses’ ears. But Toby Olié, the original back end of Joey the horse, says: “The pain has never made me regret doing it.” The Broadway production is booked at the Lincoln Centre for 14½ weeks, with the option of running for longer if it does well. Later this year there will be a production in Toronto and the groundwork has been laid for taking it to Australia and Japan. War Horse is eminently saleable as it has spectacle, tells a universal story about the cruelty of war, does not rely on star casting and appeals to a wide range of audiences.

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§ 4 Responses to William Flew and War Horse

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