There was no point in my asking Mervyn Millar, the associate puppetry director of War Horse, to give an abbreviated history of the production when he and I sat down in the LCT lobby the other afternoon, just before the cast and crew moved officially from the basement rehearsal room up to the stage of the Beaumont. (A moment marked emotionally by a subdued, but no less palpable, whoosh.)
There was no point because Millar, quite literally, has written the book on this production, from its stirrings, in 2005, in workshops at the National Theatre, in London, through its National production, in 2007, to its ongoing West End engagement and arrival on American shores. That book is called The Horse's Mouth: Staging Morpurgo's War Horse, and if you have any sense at all you would be well-advised to buy it, not to mention Journey of the Tall Horse, Millar's wonderful chronicle of another Handspring production.
Among a million other matters, which I shall be doling out in subsequent blog postings, one question in particular called out to me when speaking with Millar: how do the many members of the War Horse creative team keep their responsibilities straight? This is a staging, after all, that has an unusually long roster of major production credits (writers, directors, designers, etc.).
"On paper," answered Millar, who grew up in the London district of Wimbledon, "the list of collaborators sounds as if it shouldn't work. At times, the interactions can be messy. We have a lot of people who aren't good at staying within their job descriptions. But that's a help: everyone is feeding everyone else." Referring to the production's co-directors, Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott, he added: "We all have massive respect for Tom and Marianne. They are all so generous in spirit, and that is an enormous help."
So how does Millar, who did an English literature degree at Bristol and trained as a theatre director in Norwich, describe his own work in the War Horse collaboration? Keep in mind that, officially, he isn't even listed among that dozen or so major names I mentioned a minute ago, who are grouped on this website under the umbrella of "Creative Team." By consensus he could be listed as "resident angel," which was the designation conferred on him by Basil Jones, Handspring's co-founder, for Millar's work on Tall Horse in Cape Town. But I wasn't about to ask Millar: "How does it feel to be War Horse's 'resident angel'?" I have avoided all such questions since an interview in which I asked Angelina Jolie how it felt to be called the world's most beautiful woman and received a stare so cold it could have turned the Kalahari glacial.
"I don't know how to describe my job," Millar answered. "The simple answer is: I help put the show on." He added: "More specifically, I train actors to be puppeteers. But I'm more a theatre maker than a puppeteer." Millar has also, it must be noted, been a performer in the National Theatre iteration of War Horse. He was Baby Joey the first year and Topthorn's head the second. "I didn't think I'd enjoy performing," he observed. "But as a puppeteer you're not quite exposed to the audience in the same way. That's good for a shy exhibitionist like me."
Millar also helps oversee quality control on War Horse. He observed that even in his role as someone who checks in occasionally on the London War Horse to see how it's going and flowing, "I go to give feedback, not to police choreography. I'm more of a coach than a cop." More than "resident angel" or "associate puppetry director," the designation "coach" seems to me a fine way to shorthand Millar's essential involvement in this complex production.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.