Arts & Entertainment

War Horse – Full Interview With Matthew Forbes (Associate Puppetry Director)

Photo: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

By Mark Morellini

Matthew Forbes is the Associate Puppetry Director of War Horse, the incredible show which audiences all around the world have fallen in love with. In this interview, Forbes explains in depth all that happens behind the scenes and the wizardry of the puppeteers who make this the must-see show of the year!

1). COULD YOU PLEASE EXPLAIN WHAT YOUR JOB AS ASSOCIATE PUPPETRY DIRECTOR IS ON THIS PRODUCTION?

I have worked on the show for over ten years, beginning as a performer in the West End production, during which I played in over 1000 performances! I was asked to join the creative team in 2012, and have since looked after the show internationally. As the Associate Puppetry Director, it’s my job to audition performers from all different backgrounds (actors, dancers, circus performers, stunts, etc..) I then work extensively with the cast during the rehearsal period to get them to perform the puppetry we need in the show to the highest of standards. Once the show is up and running my colleague, the Resident Puppetry Director, looks after the show day-to-day, but I’m always on hand to support and advise. I regularly visit the production to ensure the high standards we expect are being maintained, and I’m thrilled to say I’ve never been disappointed, the show always amazes me!

2). WAS IT AN AMBITIOUS PROCESS PLANNING THE PUPPETRY ASPECT OF THE SHOW AND GETTING IT OPERATIONAL?

Absolutely! It’s a mammoth task bringing a puppet horse to life on stage! Handspring Puppet Company, the original directors and designers of our beautiful horses have created truly mesmerising puppets. They look like horses, move like horses, but the real challenge is making sure they think and respond like horses. During the rehearsal period we take the company on ‘school trips’ to visit military horses, during this time we spend time analysing the thoughts, and emotions of the horse; what are the horses thinking and feeling? You would do this with any human character; what are their thoughts, and objectives, what do they need? Once we know these things we can then structure the movements and responses to help tell the story best.

3). THE PUPPETEERS CAN BE SEEN OPERATING THE HORSES ON STAGE – REGARDLESS, WILL AUDIENCES SEE THESE HORSES COME TO LIFE IN THEIR MINDS AS REAL BREATHING HORSES?

We never hide out puppeteers during the show. Each horse is operated by three puppeteers;

  • a head puppeteer – responsible for the head of the horse
  • a heart puppeteer – responsible for the front legs
  • a hind puppeteer – responsible for the back legs of the horse.

When the three of them work closely together they bring the puppet to life with incredible accuracy and detail. Their eyeline is completely focused on the puppet, this level of focus and the passion in which they perform quickly means that the audience is able to suspend their disbelief and the puppeteers seem to vanish. The greatest compliment is when we have audience members who own horses come to us at the end of the show and say that they completely believed the horses were real! “I saw Joey’s eye blink, and the hair on his hind legs quiver” – we don’t have hair or blinking eyes on the puppets, but the detailed work the puppeteers do combined with the audience imagination gives us this truly magical impact!

4). IS THIS JUST THE STORY OF A BOY’S SEARCH FOR HIS HORSE DURING THE HORRORS OF WORLD WAR I OR ARE THERE HIDDEN THEMES AND MESSAGES FOR AUDIENCES?

War Horse has so many themes; it’s a tale of friendship, love, loyalty, trust, family, overcoming adversity and much more. The war plays a significant role within the show, it was indeed horrific, but in our story, it’s the backdrop to a much more personal and intimate story. Michael Morpurgo, the author of the original book says the show is “an anthem for peace”, and it truly is. It puts human relationships and connections front and centre and makes us reflect on life as a whole.

5). WAR HORSE HAS HAD PHENOMENAL SUCCESS WORLDWIDE. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THIS SHOW THAT RESONATES WITH AUDIENCES?

I think this show is so popular because despite the fact that we all have phones, are able to see blockbuster movies with special effects, and can disappear into an online world, we all really crave human connection. When you go to the theatre and watch a show you see the actors sweat, you feel the warmth of the lights and feel the atmosphere and emotion of every moment, you don’t get this with the movies. I think seeing the story come to life in front of you is part of the magic of War Horse you see the puppet horses, you know they’re not real, but very quickly your completely immersed in the story, breathing along with the horse, sat at the edge of your seat and wiping away tears at the end!

We’re all animal lovers and having a horse as the main character gives us something really wonderful to connect with. Horses are stunning creatures and the journey that Joey and Topthorn (our two main horses in the show) go on an epic journey. Horses in the war were impartial, they didn’t take sides and that’s one of the great things about the show; it shines a light on all of the animals who have been subjected to war. With the Centenary of the end of the First World War last year, now more than ever is an important time for us to remember this and keep sharing our story so that those sacrifices are not forgotten.

6). WHAT AUDIENCES WOULD THIS SHOW APPEAL TO?

This production appeals to all, it truly is a piece of beautiful theatre suitable for the entire family. The puppetry in the show is truly remarkable, we put life-size horses on stage, our audiences fall in love with these puppets and they follow them on an incredibly dramatic, and emotional journey. We begin in beautiful Devon farmland, and transport our audience to the battlefields of France, we see horses and men in combat, we see ploughs, tanks, guns and flags of surrender. We do all of this in front of the audience’s eyes. We share this wonderful story with people of all ages. War Horse does something special, it brings people together in the theatre. We share this powerful and incredibly inspiring story, and all get to experience it live. The puppetry, songs, lighting, sound, set and costume design are all truly stunning. The National Theatre is so passionate about touring their work, and War Horse is no exception, it really is a spectacular piece of theatre.