As a teenager, Scott Miller travelled to London from his home in Glasgow, Scotland to see a new play, War Horse, the adaptation of a book about a young boy, Albert and his horse, Joey who are separated by the First World War. “I remember feeling completely inspired and in shock because of how amazing the show was,” he says. “I was overwhelmed by the theatrical experience that you go through watching War Horse…it shook me.”
Ten years later, as a newly graduated actor from the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art (LAMDA), Miller was one of hundreds to audition for the lead role of Albert in a new production of War Horse being performed by the Royal National Theatre in London.
After a gruelling four rounds of auditions, Miller was told the part was his – quite an achievement for a young actor not long out of drama school. Before long, he would be travelling all over Britain and internationally to play the lead part of young farm boy, Albert Narracott – a part played by Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington in the original production.
In January, Miller will be travelling with War Horse to Australia, after touring all over England, as well as Scotland, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Paris and Dublin. How challenging does he find it to share much of his time on stage emotionally connecting with puppets, specifically ‘his’ horse puppet, Joey?
“You know, the puppeteers are so amazing at what they do. Once I’d done a couple of rehearsals, it was really easy to imagine you’re working with a ‘real horse’ on stage. With the audiences too, I can see that for them, it’s like a lightbulb switching on and they’re believing that it’s a horse as well.”
Set in Devon, southern England, the play centres on a young boy, Albert and his beloved horse, Joey. When war breaks out, Joey is sold through necessity by Albert’s father to the army. Bereft without his best friend, Albert joins up as soon as he is old enough and embarks on a quest to reunite with Joey.
As the adaptation of a novel of the same name, War Horse had its beginnings in a fireside conversation the author, Michael Morpurgo had with an elderly gentleman in a village pub. The man, Wilf Ellis had fought in WWI and talked about his experiences of the war via the army horses, which prompted Morpurgo to think about soldiers’ connection with horses and their ability to communicate or confide in the animals in a way they may struggle to talk openly and honestly with each other.
The novel he subsequently wrote spawned both the 2011 film directed by Steven Spielberg and the stage play.
In this current production, 34 actors and 23 puppets combine to evoke wartime Britain and France on stage. Says Miller: “It’s a theatrical experience that takes you from a little town in Devon to the middle of a battleground in the south of France, and it does it instantly and so elegantly.”
Actor and director, Gareth Aled began working on War Horse as a puppeteer in 2013. Seven years and some 1000 performances later, he is now the show’s resident puppetry director, a role he is passionate about.
“Puppetry is obviously a huge part of the storytelling and War Horse is this incredible piece of theatrical storytelling. Mine is an incredible job to have,” he says. “Animals don’t understand the politics of the war, as a human would. An animal responds to good behaviour and kindness and a horse responds to tone and intonation and physicality. So that makes it a really powerful way to tell a story set during the First World War.”
The puppets in the play – which include not only horses, but crows, swallows, soldiers and a goose – are designed by the Handspring Puppet Company based in Cape Town, South Africa.
“They call themselves the Handspring Puppet Company because they believe the life of the puppets springs directly from the hands of the puppeteers,” says Aled. “We don’t hide our puppeteers away in the shadows, or distance them from the puppets. They’re there but through some simple principles and techniques, you forget that they exist. It feels almost childlike in a way – that through this inanimate object of cane, aluminium, leather and mesh, fabricated and structured in such a way that it represents a horse and then brought to life by our puppeteers – you’re going to completely believe in the life of this puppet and not only the puppet, but its character. It’s an important story to tell of the bond between human and animal.”
10 January – 12 April, 2020 (Sydney, Melbourne & Perth)