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More than 2500 young people from the Borough of Brent will see War Horse at specially dedicated schools performances this week

National Theatre

The acclaimed National Theatre production of WAR HORSE
will be performed this week to over 2,500 young people at two specially dedicated performances for state school pupils from the Borough of Brent,
taking place in the lead up to Brent’s year as London Borough of Culture 2020

Today the matinee performance of the National Theatre’s acclaimed production of War Horse at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre had a special audience made up of more than 1,300 young people from state schools across the Borough of Brent. This performance was introduced by author Michael Morpurgo, who welcomed the young people, saying, ‘It’s completely wonderful for War Horse to be performed to an auditorium full of young people, many of whom will have never set foot in a theatre before. These are the most important audiences and I shall be sat there right alongside them, only perhaps crying a little more.’

Today’s audience was attended by primary school-aged pupils, with secondary school pupils attending the evening performance on the 20 November. More than 2,500 young people from the Borough of Brent will experience War Horse this week for a subsidised ticket of £5, with all teachers seeing the production for free.

Both the performances and surrounding activity are supported by the National Theatre, John Lyon’s Charity, the leading independent funder for children and young people in North and West London, and Troubadour Trust, which aims to inspire arts in the communities local to Troubadour Theatres.

During the six week run of the Olivier and Tony-Award winning play, the NT, together with the Troubadour Trust, have developed a programme of activity that has engaged with schools in Brent, as well as families in the local community in the lead up to the borough’s year as Borough of Culture in 2020. This includes professional development events for teachers, working with the creative team on War Horse to build on professional drama expertise, which was delivered in association with the Imperial War Museum. War Horse cast members have also run a series of puppetry workshops for young people, a weeklong project with the Brent Youth Theatre and a Community Day for families in Brent. Prior to today’s matinee, over 100 young people took part in a War Horse Page-to-Stage event, which explored the process of putting Michael Morpurgo’s novel on the stage, discovering the historical context of the play and the skills involved in directing and performing.

Alice King-Farlow, Director of Learning at the National Theatre said, ‘We are so pleased to be able to offer young people from the Borough of Brent the opportunity to see War Horse this week. This play is not only a beloved and enduring story, but it is also an extraordinary piece of theatre, combining puppetry, music, design and stagecraft seamlessly. It feels particularly pertinent for these young people to be seeing War Horse during Discover! Creative Careers week, as we welcome young people to the National Theatre and to NT performances on tour, to see performances and take part in backstage activity, showcasing the range of backstage and offstage roles needed to bring a production like War Horse to the stage.’ 

Backed by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Discover! Creative Careers Week runs until 22 November, with 40,000 young people from around the country aged 11+ invited to take part in events that will provide them with a glimpse into the creative industries. Alongside the schools performances of War Horse, on 20 November the National Theatre will be welcoming 130 state secondary school students from across London to the South Bank to take part in demonstrations, workshops and hands-on activities. The NT will also be introducing local primary schools to theatre making and the backstage world through their Make Theatre Days during the week.

The creative industries are one of the fastest growing sectors of the UK economy and vital to the lifeblood, identity and cultural output of our country. The World Economic Forum states that by 2020, Creativity will be amongst the top three most important skills looked for by employers. The National Theatre believe that all young people should have the opportunity to experience and participate in drama no matter where they are in the UK, and are committed to supporting schools across the country and to developing teachers’ skills to ensure that the arts, including drama and theatre, remain a vital part of school life and ensure that the pipeline of talent into the creative industries are not diminished. The schools performances in Wembley are an essential part of the War Horse season in Wembley.

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Puppetry Director Matthew Forbes: “Babe, The Sheep Pig has original songs, it’s funny, will make you laugh and cry, you’ll get completely immersed in the story and you’ll find yourself shouting out and joining in.”

Matthew Forbes
Matthew Forbes

Matthew Forbes

Matthew Forbes is the Puppetry Director on Babe, The Sheep-Pig. He chats about how he got into puppetry, and how the animals of Hogget’s Farm are brought to life in this new stage production.

How did you get into puppetry directing?
I trained as an Actor at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama, specialising in Collaborative and Devised Theatre. This still had all of the elements of a classical actors training, but with a focus on more contemporary styles of theatre. Inspired by companies such as Complicite, DV8, Punchdrunk and Blind Summit, the course gave me a huge insight into a more visual approach to theatre making. I think this training helped me secure a place in the National Theatre’s smash hit; War Horse. I performed in London’s West End for three years, totalling over 1000 performances. Bringing those puppets to life every day was a huge learning curve and gave me an incredible practical puppetry training, very much learning on the job. After leaving the performing company, I was asked by the National Theatre to join the creative team for the show, and was given the responsibility of looking after the puppetry on touring and international productions of the show… the rest they say, is history.

You have spent a huge part of your career working on War Horse. What do you think is special about the puppetry in the show?
The horses in War Horse are arguably some of the most famous puppets in the world. Joey is the star and he’s been all over the world, met more celebrities, heads of state and members of the Royal family than some of the biggest Hollywood stars. The puppetry in the show tells an incredible story and it’s all thanks to Handspring Puppet Company, the South African team who created and built the puppets. During rehearsals we get the performers to think like horses- I think that’s what makes them so special- the puppets look so life-like without moving them, the difficult job is to make sure that they think and respond like horses. As a nation we have a huge infinity with animals and so can spot when the puppet is being truthful and horse-like. People’s eyes are always drawn to the horses and so even the smallest ear flick, breath, or tail swish brings life and makes us believe they are alive.

What types of puppetry can we expect in Babe, The Sheep-Pig? Which characters are brought to life using puppets?
The puppets in Babe are fantastic! They’ve been beautifully designing by Max Humphries and Dik Downey; Max has been working with Cirque du Soleil and we’ve worked closely together on several shows before. The performers do an incredible job of bringing a farmyard of puppets to life. Each life-size puppet is wonderfully unique and requires a different amount of puppeteers to bring them to life. Babe, our Hero, is a fully articulated puppet; he blinks, walks, talks and even wiggles his snout! He totally steals the hearts of our audience, he’s adorable and brought to life by the entire company. Oliver Grant is the core puppeteer of Babe, he is responsible for the characterisation and voice of our piglet, but he works closely with a revolving team of supporting puppeteers who all provide so much detailed work. That pink pig really comes to life before your eyes! Babe is joined on the farm by Ma; an adorable older sheep, three cheeky Puppies, a cunning Cat, a very opinionated Cockerel, three daft Ducks and a scary Worrier Dog- who Babe bravely stands up to! Our incredibly talented cast of actors, musicians, and puppeteers bring all of the puppets in the show to life; singing, dancing and telling Babe’s story.

How do you go about training actors to work with puppets? What are the challenges?
Puppetry is a very ego-less and selfless style of performance. As an actor on stage you normally want people to look at you, but when you’re puppeteering you don’t want them to look at you- you want them to look at the object in your hands. One of the biggest challenges is to therefore get our puppeteers to disappear. We don’t hide them behind a screen, they’re always visible, but the attention and focus they give to the puppet directs the audiences eye to the puppets, so the puppeteer in effect vanishes in to the background, and we watch the puppet. This can take a long time to master, but our wonderful cast make it look easy. Some of the puppets in Babe require two or three puppeteers to bring them to life. Getting actors to work as a team to bring a single character to life can sometimes be a challenge- the last thing you want is the head going in the opposite direction to the tail!

Why should families come and see Babe, The Sheep-Pig?
The show is truly magical, the puppets are beautiful and the cast are incredibly talented! Watching Babe struggle and overcome the challenges that are thrown his way is really inspiring. Our little pig has big dreams; he wants to be a sheep-dog! He’s told he can’t be, but he perceivers, keeps trying and doesn’t give up. That is an important morale that we should all remember; when we put our minds to it and try, we can do anything! Children and adults will be sat on the edge of their seats, following Babe’s journey, willing him on to succeed. The show has original songs and music, it’s funny, will make you laugh and cry, you’ll get completely immersed in the story and you’ll find yourself shouting out and joining in. Everyone is welcome at the Hogget’s farm and you can’t help but leave with a smile!