Resident Director Charlie Kenber on War Horse

Joey and Albert have galloped into Melbourne’s Regent Theatre, boasting a true triumph of live theatre.

Charlie Kenber

The critically acclaimed War Horse has returned down under, this time with the National Theatre of London touring cast in tow.

Keeping everything in check is Resident Director Charlie Kenber. A graduate of Birkbeck’s MFA in Theatre Directing, some of Charlie’s directing credits include Mary Shelley and her Frankenstein (Performance Lab, Sheffield), On Behalf of the People (2018 Tour), Love Song (The Holt, Sheffield) and On Behalf of the People (NCMME/Tour). He has taken the reigns of this magnificent beast, and has been following the War Horse tour around the globe for the last year.

Can you tell me about your journey with War Horse?

I only joined in November 2018, sort of a year and a half ago, and I’ve been touring with them since January. It’s been amazing, we get to come to beautiful theatres like this [The Regent Theatre, Melbourne], and beautiful cities. it’s nice when you get different reactions as well. So obviously here there’s a big ANZAC history. We’ve been to New Zealand and they had a similar sort of reaction. And the rest of the world… you get different things from the audience every night.

Is it refreshing to play to different audiences?

Absolutely, and it shapes what happens on stage as well. And I guess that’s one of the key differences between this and a film or something, that it’s actually a two-way street. And I don’t think audiences realise that, it’s probably good that they don’t [chuckles]. So it really affects the playing of the piece and feels like a conversation between us and the audience.

War Horse Press Call at The Regent Theatre in Melbourne | Photo by Andrew Tauber

I believe there’s music in the play as well?

We’ve got some that runs through the whole thing, so there’s this underlying thread of music which is really nice. It’s gone through a genesis over the years, which is really nice, so it always feels fresh.

Had you worked with puppets before War Horse?

Not in any significant way. It’s amazing… you never get over it. It’s incredible. And the attention to detail, commitment, and endurance of the puppeteers is really remarkable. But it’s interesting them rehearsing, because there’s a duality going on. There’s some lovely scenes going on with Albert and Joey, it’s a two hander, it’s two characters on stage – but when you’re rehearsing, it’s really easy to forget there are three puppeteers making that character. The first time I stood on stage between the two big horses, it’s quite scary. They feel like the live animals you don’t know what they’re going to do. I’m quite tall and they still tower. They’re remarkable things to work with.

And the animal sound effects are all live?

That’s one of the things they learn in rehearsals as well. They have a two week puppetry rehearsal session before main rehearsals, and then we rehearse for 10 weeks. And some of these puppeteers did the last tour, so they’ve done it for a couple of years now. They work together so they can make sounds that are longer or louder than human sound. And a lot of the sounds are actually made on the in-breath, which I find really interesting.

War Horse Press Call at The Regent Theatre in Melbourne |
Photo by Andrew Tauber

How does the production balance out the craziness of the technical puppetry?

I think what’s lovely about this piece is that we contrast the complexity of the puppets with quite a poor theatre design. The stage is pretty bare, there’s not really any huge pieces of set. We do used the video projection with drawings from our designer Rae Smith, and it’s been animated by 59 Productions to create this incredible projection. But it’s all done in that poor theatre style. It’s all about imagination. It makes us create the full picture, and us believe that it’s a real horse. We don’t hide the puppeteers, it’s a really wonderful design choice to acknowledge that it’s a play, it’s not reality.

What have been some challenges you’ve faced as Resident Director?

Something that actually hasn’t been as big a challenge, and that usually is, is keeping it fresh. That’s always part of the job, we’ve been touring for a year with this company, but I think part of touring to exciting places and having such a gorgeous piece to work with is that the actors are used to trying things out and keeping it fresh. I think an exciting challenge has been fitting it into each venue, in terms of how I shape the delivery of the show from the performance point of view has been a challenge. But that keeps it exciting. I never think it should be exactly the same every night.

War Horse was originally a novel, then a film, and now the stage adaptation – what makes the play different to its predecessors?

The heart is, for me, certainly stronger when it’s live. The connection… the act of 1500 people sitting in a room together and looking in the same direction for two and a half hours, it’s kind of an insane and ridiculous thing. But it creates such an energy.


War Horse is currently playing at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre until February 8. It then moves onto Sydney and Perth. 

Tickets are now available through TakeYourSeats.com

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

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