Brisbane brings wartime epic War Horse to QPAC

Cody Fern in a scene from the live theatre show War Horse.
Cody Fern in a scene from the live theatre show War Horse. Contributed by Kerry O'Brien Publicity

THE play that inspired Steven Spielberg to create his wartime epic War Horse is finally coming to Brisbane.

After acclaimed seasons in Melbourne and Sydney, the Australian production opens at QPAC on July 6.

Nick Stafford's Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's book features life-sized horse puppets strong enough for men to ride.

It takes three highly skilled puppeteers to bring the large horses, created by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, to life in all of their galloping, charging and bucking glory.

The play tells the story of young Albert Narracott and his beloved horse Joey, which is sold to the British cavalry during the start of the First World War and shipped off to France.

Perth-born actor Cody Fern landed the lead role of Albert shortly after selling everything he owned and moving to Sydney to pursue his acting career.

He did not see Spielberg's movie when it was originally released in cinemas, and he doesn't plan to until after the production has finished.

"I'm glad I didn't see it, not that I don't admire the people's work, but we wanted this to be a uniquely Australian production," he said.

"I wanted to carve my way. I didn't want to pick up other people's interpretations.

"I'm getting a bunch of friends together and we're going to watch the film after the play finishes."

During his preparations for War Horse Fern worked with acclaimed acting coach Susan Batson.

"She's called the Oscar maker," he said.

"I came out (of my sessions with Susan) with a much larger grasp, a greater depth of emotional insight into Albert and myself. Things changed after Susan; my life changed after Susan."

Working large puppets and teams of puppeteers added another layer of difficulty to the production.

"The whole premise of War Horse is based on the interaction between puppeteer and actor," he said.

"Puppet sounds so Muppet-y; it's not like that at all. It's very technical and incredibly magical.

"I never see the puppeteers on stage. All I see is Joey, but at the same time I'm so technically aware of them… you have to be so technically proficient but at the same time so emotionally available."

He said theatre-goers should not expect the play to be too similar to Spielberg's 2011 film, which is an amalgamation of the play and book.

"What happens in the play and film, the general arc is the same but the ending in film is very different to the play," he said.

"The characters you meet are very different. It's a very different experience. It's like comparing apples and oranges."

Fern describes his version of Albert as a "very vulnerable and very open-hearted young boy".

"He's growing up in a time when children are owned; they don't have their own voice," he said.

"He has worked from the age of five, and when you first see Albert at the age of 14 he works from sun up to sun down.

"He's very lonely, incredibly shy and he's waiting to burst at the seams and have this life he's never been able to have.

"Albert is wonderful because he has a real sense of moral integrity. It's the only thing he has and he will fight for that because he doesn't have a larger experience of the world."

War Horse plays the Lyric Theatre at QPAC from July 6 to August 4.

Tickets start from $69.90 plus booking fee.

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