War Horse is the most successful show in the National Theatre’s history. After two seasons at the NT it transferred to London’s West End and it was here that William Rycroft joined the company for what he thought would be six months. Four and a half years later he took his final bow having seen the show become a global smash-hit, spawning productions on Broadway, in Australia, China and other countries as it toured the world. Royal visits, glamorous guests, a Hollywood film adaptation from Steven Spielberg and a live broadcast to millions across the globe all followed too. Amidst all this, a company of over 30 actors trooped out on stage each night, 8 shows a week, in front of a thousand people and told that story as if it was the first time.
What does it feel like to perform in front of the Queen? Or Steven Spielberg? Or your celebrity crush? How do you keep sane performing the same show night after for night, more than 1,700 times? What do you learn about yourself as an actor in such a demanding show? What do you learn about yourself as a person on something so all-consuming? This behind-the-scenes look at a theatrical phenomenon tells us plenty about theatre but just as much about friendship, family and working together.
Those that saw the show may be surprised to discover some of the antics that went on whilst they watched. Those that didn’t will learn that there are seven different ways to cry, why actors need to play, and how it feels to be in a play about the First World War for longer than the actual war itself! Is it weird to watch Benedict Cumberbatch say your lines on the silver screen? Do you still get nervous after so long? How do you move on after such a unique experience? Step backstage for a unique view on the story of a boy and his horse during the Great War.
This is how it begins. I’ve just moved out of London into Hertfordshire with my wife and baby son. The very weekend we hand over the deposit to secure our new rental we find out that our family of three will become a family of four in about eight months time. I currently have no acting work lined up. None at all. Not a thing. But then comes a call: a meeting for War Horse, which has enjoyed two runs at the National Theatre, six months in its new home in the West End and is now looking to recast some roles for another six-month contract. Perfect. I’ve worked at the National before, I have a range of physical skills that will lend themselves perfectly to the show and hopefully lift me above some of the other actors auditioning, I even know that director Marianne Elliott has a young one herself, surely she’ll sympathise with my plight and give me the job just to provide for those two hungry mouths!
The day of the meeting arrives. Now, as a little side note, I should add that the previous day our ageing car had died so catastrophically that it was now being made roadworthy at a garage which had kindly provided a courtesy car so that my now noticeably pregnant wife could take our son up the very steep hill to nursery. Anyway, I make my way to the station to catch my train into London and sense as soon as I enter the building that something isn’t right. I look up at the boards and see lots of horrible turquoise which means cancelled or delayed trains. This is fine. I have left loads of extra time to get there, this being possibly the most important audition of my life, a slight delay is only going to result in my being on time rather than stupidly early. Except that when I get up to the platform I see one of those huge, tilting Pendolino trains stranded on platform 2. These beasts only ever speed through our lowly station, doing that scary tilting thing that apparently helps them maintain speed, but now that the train is stationary all it’s doing is to make it look as though it might topple on its side as well as making it very hard for those in first class to keep all of that freshly roasted coffee in their china cups. This is not a good sign. The signals are all red, the information is sketchy and I have no other way, bar a prohibitively expensive cab, of getting into town.
I want to start by saying a huge thank you.
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