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Dramatic intervention: how War Horse came to China

17th Sep '16

The National Theatre’s First World War hit faced its greatest challenge when it toured China. In the latest in the Routes to Growth series, Alastair Smart explains how it succeeded

Company: National Theatre Trading in: China Sector: Theatre

It has been seen by 7m people worldwide and adapted into a movie by Stephen Spielberg. War Horse is the most profitable production in National Theatre history.

Telling the moving tale of the relationship between Devonshire farm boy Albert and a horse called Joey at the time of the First World War, it has successfully toured South Africa, Canada, the US and beyond.

But when the NT was approached by the National Theatre of China about staging the show in Beijing, executive director Lisa Burger admits she was “daunted, if excited”.

“Theatre makers are naturally collaborative,” she says. “They naturally want to share their stories with as many people as possible, but taking War Horse to China was always going to be a challenge.

‘Personal bonds are crucial, because with them comes trust, enthusiasm and a determination to succeed’

“Not simply the process of translating the play into Mandarin and ensuring a piece that’s so English worked for a Chinese audience, but the fact that our ways of working are so different.”

War Horse opened to widespread acclaim in Beijing in September 2015 after two years of preparation, but Ms Burger admits she perhaps underestimated the difference in working methods between the two cultures.

“In British theatre, we have clear, defined roles – such as stage manager, production manager, lighting technician – and I thought it’d be a simple case of assigning each of those roles to a Chinese person.

“But China has its own rich theatrical tradition, one that dates back centuries. It has its own way of doing things – and roles like production manager just don’t exist in the same way.”

For Ms Burger, such differences can be overcome, though, by a sincere show of willing on a visiting company’s part – or, as she puts it, “proving what the collaboration means to you”.

Time and place: the story is set in Devon in 1914

Time and place: the story is set in Devon in 1914

During the peak period of collaboration, as the show took shape behind the scenes, the National Theatre had 50 staff working in China; from director Alex Sims to the puppet-master who trained locals in how to operate 7ft-high Joey.

It also helped that there was common ground: puppetry, of which War Horse is a supreme display, is one of China’s most ancient forms of theatre.

Above all, however, Ms Burger stresses nothing would have been possible without strong, personal relationships – such as the one she developed with the National Theatre of China’s executive producer, Li Dong.

“Personal bonds are crucial, because with them comes trust, enthusiasm and a determination to succeed.”

In this case, such bonds meant the Chinese agreed to handle two of the potential obstacles facing foreign companies wishing to do business in China: employment regulations and import taxes. Staging a production of the size and spectacle of War Horse, after all, was no easy feat.

“When it came to materials, many could be found or made locally, of course; but we wanted to remain true to our source, and there was a lot of tweed worn by country folk in early 20th-century Devon, for instance. The Chinese didn’t know what tweed was, so we required their assistance in importing it, in rather large volume, from the UK”.

Cultural exchange: a triumphant collaboration between the NT and National Theatre of China

Cultural exchange: a triumphant collaboration between the NT and National Theatre of China

Ms Burger says the National Theatre is already planning further projects with its Asian counterpart ­– including the likelihood of the Chinese returning the War Horse compliment and helping bring a show to London.

“Links like this one are never taken lightly,” she says. “They’re about a deep and extended cultural exchange.”

After two months in Beijing, War Horse moved to Shanghai and a handful of other Chinese cities. It will have clocked up 200 performances in its first year and will continue to be performed until September 2016.

Ms Burger has been out to China several times herself, from an initial meeting with Li Dong to the opening night in Beijing, an event she remembers with fondness.

“It was a poignant affair, coming the day after China had commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of its war against Japan and fascism. Admittedly, War Horse tells the tale of a different World War (the First not the Second), but its opening still felt momentous; a case of looking forward while also looking back, a proof of what we can achieve as a society by sharing stories and working together.”


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