The Horse's Mouth

Mervyn Miller
National Theatre and Oberon Books

Everybody who has seen War Horse, the National Theatre's Christmas show adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's teen novel, will be fascinated by this volume about its making.

Mervyn Miller was in the centre of events throughout, in his dual roles as Young Joey, the pony that would grow to be the centre of a story about the First World War; and Emilie, a little French girl who befriended him.

His perspective on the events that led to what became a memorable production is invaluable both for practitioners and those who will form what should be a packed Olivier audience throughout the run.

The attractions of this collaboration between actors, writers and directors on the one hand and puppeteers and video designers on the other must be unique, at least in this country.

The component parts inevitably started with the selection of Morpurgo's book as appropriate subject matter for a successor to His Dark Materials and Coram Boy. This was hardly obvious material for a play, since the protagonist is a horse, whom it was decided at an early point in proceedings would remain silent throughout the play.

This presented many challenges for the co-directors, Tom Morris whose experience at BAC was invaluable in creating the physical and visual effects and Marianne Elliott who is more used to text-based work. They introduced writer Nick Stafford into the mix, together with designer Rae Smith and the video team from Fifty Nine Productions.

Even this large creative team was only a starting point, since the whole project rested on the remarkable talents of a South African theatre and puppet making company, Handspring, without whose Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones this show would have been much the poorer and quite possibly would not have existed. They built the remarkable horses, seen in a series of graphic photos in the middle of the book and around whom the production was crafted.

This presented unique challenges to actors, puppeteers and directors, as much of the theatre rule book (if there is such a thing) had to be ignored. It is bad enough to act with animals and children but possibly even worse when you have to play part or the whole of an animal or child or act with puppet versions of them.

However, a talented and versatile 30-strong team of actors and musicians knuckled down and worked extremely hard during the rehearsal period to present what became a unique theatrical experience exploring both war and the relationships between both animals and humans and humans and humans.

The book has been logically compiled, considering the way in which a novel about war could be effectively presented on stage, looking at the way in which the National Theatre operates, and then exploring the puppets and the space in which they were to be viewed.

The Horse's Mouth may be priced rather highly for the average pocket but it offers a valuable insight into the way in which a large ensemble worked together to invent a new theatrical language and then perfected it before the play finally opened in front of 1200 people in October, 2007. In particular, the way in which the two directors collaborated and their interaction with the puppet company is fascinating and perhaps offers a view of one possible future strand of theatre.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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