After two successful runs at the National Theatre, World War I drama War Horse is transferring to the West End. Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel, the play tells the story of young country boy Albert and his beloved horse Joey. When Albert’s father sells Joey to the army, Albert, heartbroken and with nothing to lose, embarks on a dangerous journey to find his beloved horse and bring him home.
Fresh out of drama school when he won the part at the National six months ago, 22 year old Londoner Kit Harington makes his West End debut in the role of Albert at the New London theatre. But as he tells Charlotte Marshall, he’s more worried about the thought of putting on weight and breaking one of the life-size horse puppets than the idea of treading the boards of the New London theatre.
So, what’s Albert like?
KH: Albert is a passionate young guy. At the start of the play he’s very susceptible and shy but he finds confidence in nurturing this horse [Joey] and so grows into a man with Joey, but is still quite passionate and heated at times, when things like Joey being sold comes up and he’s heart broken and gets very angry with his father. His life and soul is his horse essentially.
Why is his horse Joey so important to him?
KH: In that day and age a horse firstly would be a huge status symbol within a small village and Albert’s a working class lad so that’s initially why there’s excitement surrounding the horse. But it becomes more than that because they grow up together and he finds that he’s a wonderful horseman. He works brilliantly with Joey and essentially, like many people do with horses, falls into this obsession with this animal.
Is it tough playing the same character every night?
KH: Yes, it is tough. It can get quite tiring because for Joey the horse and for me it’s a very physical play, so it can get knackering. And I won’t have done six months of eight shows a week straight before, so that’ll be a new test.
Luke Treadaway played Albert in the play’s first run at the National. Was it nerve wracking taking over the role?
KH: It was kind of, but it’s such a brilliant first job for me that it didn’t matter so much. I got into rehearsals and they were all so supportive and started from scratch anyway, they wanted to re-do everything. I wasn’t just stepping into someone else’s shoes; well it didn’t feel like it.
What has your experience working at the National been like?
KH: It has been amazing. I graduated from drama school and went straight into the National so I was incredibly lucky for a young actor and it lived up to every expectation I had of it. It’s my first professional production and they were incredibly nurturing and supportive and it is a tough and nerve wracking first role to be landed with, but they were so supportive and encouraging.
Do you feel nervous about the show transferring to the West End?
KH: It’s not nerve wracking as such. It’s nerve wracking the whole idea of the six months of shows, that’s the kind of scary bit. But there’s going to be new members of the cast, new puppeteers, it’s going to be a new space and I feel it needs that now. Its had six months at the National and doing another six months at the National I would feel would be even harder than what we’re going to do now, because it will change so it’ll feel slightly like a different show.
How is it working with the puppets in the show? Do you have to treat them like actors?
KH: There’s three [puppeteers] to a horse and they work as a team, they breath together, they try to be one organism on stage. But obviously they’re separate people in real life and I have a great working relationship with everyone in the cast I think. But working with this wooden horse is probably something I’ll never get to do again, because it’s just so bizarre!
At one point in the show you have to ride Joey, is that difficult to do?
KH: It’s more difficult for them holding me up. Two people have to carry me and bear my weight, so I have to watch what I eat sometimes, I don’t want to put on too much weight! But there was a bit where I had to learn to jump onto it from standing and it’s a 16 hand high horse, so that was pretty tough to learn, but I got it and that was the only scary bit I’d say.
Have the puppets ever broken or malfunctioned?
KH: Funnily enough they have and they do. It goes through stages, but a couple of times you’ll go on stage and one of the puppeteers will be saying “Back leg left, not working not working” or something and we’ve got this incredible puppeteer called Yvonne who will just run on like a Formula One fixing team. You just hear this drilling and she’ll have fixed it by the time we’re supposed to go back on. But once we had to stop the show because Joey’s leg broke so the stage manager came out and said “Sorry, but Joey’s hurt his leg”. The audience was surprisingly okay with it actually.
Was Michael Morpurgo, author of the novel War Horse, involved in the creative process?
KH: He was yes and he continues to be. He came in for one rehearsal and sat with us and helped us to decipher what we thought the horses’ personalities were like. He has seen the show countless times, he comes to see it in support of us and we’re all on first name terms with him backstage. I think he’s very proud of what was achieved and he still sees it very much as his, which is good.
Did you do any research into World War I when preparing to play Albert?
KH: Yes lots, it was very depressing! I read certain books like All Quiet On The Western Front. I’d been to the World War I graves and I knew quite a lot about the First World War and the atrocities before I did the play so I was quite clued up. But in rehearsals we went through it all again and it’s not a pretty thing to research. We’re doing this play and we’re having a great time doing it, but you kind of sit back sometimes in certain bits of the play and go “I’m glad I’m not living in 1914”.
Do you think the audience learns anything about the period from watching the play?
KH: Yes, I think it’s incredibly good for younger audience members as well because the likelihood is your older audience member will know about the war already, but as a first education on the First World War for, I don’t know, 13, 14-year olds or so I think it’s brilliant, because the second half is not light-hearted, it’s quite dark and it doesn’t hold many stops back, but the kids seem to really enjoy it and are moved by the tale.
So hopefully the show will attract young people to the theatre…
KH: Yes, I think it’s great because it’s a family show essentially and it was made initially to be a children’s show and what they found was that it didn’t just work on a younger person’s level, it worked on a family level – everybody enjoyed it. So it’s a show you can bring your children to and also have a great time yourself.
What would you like to do next in your career?
KH: Well I’ve kind of said to myself – and this isn’t set in stone – a year of doing Albert is probably enough for me. And when it’s up I’d love to work more in theatre around London. You know obviously a big TV or film break would be lovely, but I find that I’m essentially a theatre trained actor and that’s what I love doing. I love fringe theatres in London, I love theatres like the Royal Court, Soho and the National obviously and if I could work in any of those and be a jobbing actor for a while then I’m very lucky.