Joey the War Horse takes on China

Following the sad news that Joey the War Horse will be leaving London’s West End in March 2016 (see Teaching Drama Autumn 2 for full article), the Beijing National Theatre is staging the award-winning production, after more than two years of translating the script and working with South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company to bring Joey to China.War_Horse_(8570050337)

Producer Li Dong of China’s National Theatre first saw the show in 2011, two years after it moved to the West End from the Olivier Theatre, and decided he wanted to bring it to China. What followed was a collaborative project that involved navigating language barriers to translate the script.

‘The shape of the story is the same, but we had to work on the translation, the script and the songs to make the play resonate with Chinese audiences,’ says director Alex Sims. ‘We found out the problem here was general knowledge of Europe. You know, China wasn’t familiar with Europe, the French language and the German language. But working with the Chinese directing team and the translator, we managed to find Chinese idioms to fill in where something was colloquially English or French or German.

‘We’re lucky to have wonderful translators who have retained the show’s funny and touching points in a way that Chinese people can understand.’

The National Theatre in China worked hard to find a group of puppeteers fit for the job of keeping the authenticity of Joey alive, auditioning 1000 applicants for just 19 places to man the 185lb puppet of Joey, which takes three people to operate. Each successful puppeteer was required to read the handbook How to Think Like a Horse while also staying on a farm for two weeks to study the way horses move.

Puppet director Liu Xiaoyi often steps in as Joey’s head when puppet master Tommy Luther is not in China. ‘We worked out how the horses walk,’ says Xiaoyi. ‘There’s a rhythm, a certain point where a part of the horse has to pick up a step otherwise it doesn’t look right. We slowly examined every tiny movement such as when a horse is frightened or worried.’

The result has been vastly successful; on a recent trip to Beijing, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne said of the performance, ‘I’m so impressed. It was incredible.’ The first performance was in Beijing on 4 September, and runs until 31 October, before moving to Shanghai between 15 November-17 January, and then to Guangzhou between 8 March-3 May. 

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