Talking War Horse with Puppetry Director Matthew Forbes

The story of a young horse’s service in World War I France has been warming the hearts of audiences since 1982.

Michael Morpurgo’s sentimental novel War Horse has been so well loved, it has been adapted into stage show and acclaimed Stephen Spielberg film. The stage show has swept the globe, winning over 25 awards including the Tony Award for Best Play and Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. Since its premiere in 2007 at London’s National Theatre, over 8 million people in 11 different countries have taken part in the extraordinary experience that is War Horse. 

Matthew Forbes

Directed by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris and featuring groundbreaking puppetry work by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, War Horse is returning to Australia for a 2020 national tour, visiting Melbourne, Sydney, and Perth. Matthew Forbes has been quite involved with the show both on stage and behind the scenes – currently, Matthew is the Puppetry Director for the current UK and International tour of War Horse.

Matthew is an experienced director, teacher, actor, voice over artist, and puppeteer. Some recent performance credits include puppeteering Joey in War Horse (National Theatre), Robin Hood (BBC), and Shelby in the Disney animated series Boyster. He is set to star as Zazu in the UK & Ireland tour of Disney’s The Lion King later this year. Other recent creative credits include Puppetry Director for Skellig (Nottingham Playhouse & UK Tour), Director for Treasure Island (Leicester Haymarket Theatre), and Puppetry Director for Holes (Nottingham Playhouse & UK Tour).

Since puppetry is such a huge part of War Horse, I had a chat with Matthew about what got him involved with such an interesting and under-appreciated part of theatre.

Could you tell me a bit about your theatrical history?

I trained at The Central School of Speech & Drama in London on the Acting course, but specialised in Collaborative and Devised Theatre. After leaving drama school I was lucky enough to work on some fantastic projects across a wide range of different disciplines; I worked in TV, Film, Stage and VoiceOver. I saw the original production of War Horse when it was playing at the National Theatre and fell in love with the production. As an audience member I was amazed at the impact the show had; the stunning puppetry and emotional story was so enthralling.

I sent an email to my agent the following day saying how I’d love to be part of the production. I was fortunate enough to get an audition for the show when it was in London’s West End and got the part! I spent three years performing to packed out audiences. Celebrities, Royalty, World Leaders, Veterans, Adults & children, the show speaks to all and it was an honour to be part of the team that shares it. I left the show as a performer in 2012, and was asked to join the creative team. Since 2012 I’ve been responsible for the puppetry in the show internationally.

War Horse at the New London Theatre | Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

I’ve worked on the show in the UK, Holland, Berlin, America, Australia and China. It’s incredible to see that over ten years later it still has such an impact on its audiences, when I watch it now I often look around the auditorium to see how the audiences are responding; they are often sat, transfixed and totally swept up by it, completely enthralled, just as I was when I first saw it so many years ago.

What drew you to puppets?

I first worked with puppets when I was at drama school, but they were very basic! I love working with puppets, as they can often say and do things better than real people. A puppet can fly, a puppet can swim, a puppet can defy gravity and a puppet can die. The horses in War Horse have such an emotional impact on the audiences because we invest so much of our imagination into them. Puppets take us back to our childhood. We all play make believe when we’re young, we suspend our disbelief, and our imaginations run riot. This often stops as we grow up, but when you go to the theatre, you’re given permission to play again. Puppets need our imagination to live, and the more you imagine they are alive, the more the audience becomes connected and invested in the story.

War Horse at the New London Theatre | Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

How is directing puppets different from directing people?

We approach the puppetry direction in the show in the same way we approach the direction of the characters; what do they need, what is their motivation, what is their objective? This emotional and thought driven process means that all the puppeteers need to think like a horse and use that ‘fight or flight’ instinct. The puppets already look so realistic in their design, we therefore have to match this realism with the thought. We take the cast on research trips to stables, and work with military trained horses so the cast can understand the thought patterns and emotional responses horses have, they can then take this forward into their work on stage. The biggest thrill for us is when someone who owns horses, or works closely with them sees the show and completely believes in them. It’s theatrical magic, we know it’s a puppet, but we believe it’s a real horse!

The puppetry in War Horse is much bigger than most shows – how has this been for you?

War Horse is a huge show, it’s been seen by millions around the world. The main horse Joey has met more members of the royal family, and world leaders than most west end performers, with that popularity comes a huge amount of responsibility. The show tells a powerful story of love, loyalty, friendship, trusted overcoming adversity. These themes are important now, more than ever. Last year we commemorated 100 years since the end of The First World War, and so it’s important to us to keep sharing this story. Michael Morpurgo (author of the original book) says it is an “anthem for peace”, and we carry that legacy and message wherever we take the story.

War Horse at the New London Theatre | Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

What makes War Horse a unique show?

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 audiences eyes. We share this wonderful story with people of all ages. In a world where we can all watch movies on our phones, 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 are so passionate about touring there work, and War Horse is no exception, it really is a spectacular piece of theatre.

The National Theatre and Lunchbox Theatrical Productions present War Horse 

Regent Theatre, Melbourne from 10 January 2020

Lyric Theatre, Sydney from 15 February 2020

Crown Theatre, Perth from 24 March 2020

For tickets and more information, please visit the War Horse website.

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator. 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.

Gabi Bergman

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