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War Horse London cast 2011 by Brinkhoff / Mogenburg Mirvish

In the hit Broadway and West End play War Horse, Joey – a Devon farm horse brought to uncanny life through cutting-edge puppetry – is sold to the British cavalry and sent off to fight for the Empire in the First World War.

And, in a way, the lovable puppet horse is being shipped out on a similar mission today – leading the charge for Britain's new theatrical empire.

With Joey galloping into Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre this month, War Horse is just the most prominent of an increasing number of initiatives bringing Britain's National Theatre to international audiences – particularly to those in English-speaking, former British colonies.

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In what could be considered a friendlier version of imperialism, the National is transferring its most popular shows overseas (such as the Tony winner The History Boys and the upcoming a new comedy One Man, Two Guvnors), as well as broadcasting to movie theatres around the world, then funnelling the revenues back home to maintain and expand its not-for-profit operations in Britain at a time of government arts cuts.

Reached over the phone at the National's headquarters on London's South Bank, executive director Nick Starr says he hadn't considered the colonial comparison. "The dying light of the Empire, you mean?" he asks with a laugh.

"Honestly, give us something, please. The euro zone on the point of break-up, double-dip recession looming.… Please allow us, at least, to share our theatre with you."

War Horse, which opens officially in Toronto on Feb. 28, co-produced by Mirvish Productions and Broadway impresario Bob Boyett, has been an incredible financial success for the National, indeed the biggest since it was founded in 1963 under artistic director Laurence Olivier.

In the 2010-2011 financial year, Joey's box office accounted for 20 per cent of the National's £70.6-million income (the other 21 productions that season together accounted for 28 per cent). The War Horse war chest will only increase in the next annual report, now that an additional Broadway production has opened, recouped its approximately $6-million (U.S.) investment and is selling anywhere from $800,000 to $1-million in tickets a week.

The show's commercial success couldn't have come at a better time for the National, as the recession has led to belt-tightening by the U.K. government. "We were lucky enough that the move to the West End [in 2009]came along at the same time as the arts council cuts," notes Starr, who estimates the impact of reduced public funding to the theatre at around £3-million a year.

(Even after cuts, however, the National remains better subsidized than any Canadian theatre of similar size. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival, for example, gets only about 6 per cent of its budget from governments, while the National gets approximately 28 per cent of its budget from the Arts Council of England.)

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While War Horse has become a cash cow – and is being touted as an example of how arts organizations might weather cutbacks – it began as the kind of pie-in-the-sky project that its creators claim could only be born in a subsidized setting that allows artists to take risks.

Director Tom Morris, who has an experimental theatre background, first came up with the idea of adapting Michael Morpurgo's book of the same name with the help of South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company back in 2005.

National Theatre's artistic director Nicholas Hytner wasn't entirely sold, however, so he only committed to an exploratory workshop at the NT Studio – a kind of research-and-development arm that few theatre companies can afford.

Morris describes the Studio as "a series of empty rooms with a budget that allows creative teams to play around with ideas away from the commercial realities of producing theatre." It was here, over the course of a couple of years and several workshops, that Morris, choreographer Toby Sedgwick and Handspring's Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones began to develop "an untested theatrical language" that would permit a horse who couldn't speak to be the main character in a play.

Eventually, War Horse was greenlit for a full production that opened at the National's Olivier Theatre in October, 2007 – a surprise hit. "We never thought it would make its money back, really, until the day after the press night," recalls Marianne Elliott, who joined Morris as co-director along the way.

Now, of course, Joey is conquering the English-speaking world – New York last spring and now Toronto, with a North American tour and Australian production next on the agenda. Japanese and European tours are likely as well.

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Having stayed on as lead producer – as opposed to simply handing off the show to commercial impresarios, as is often the case with subsidized successes – the National has earned enough money to keep up and even expand its activities at home. Much of the surplus has gone toward NT Future, a £70-million transformation of the theatre's South Bank facility that aims to turn it into "the most inviting, accessible and technically advanced theatre in the world."

In similar way, NT Live – which has been broadcasting National productions to cinemas around the world since 2009 – has helped the theatre invest in its activities at home.

Last season, a dozen screenings of NT shows such as Hamlet and Frankenstein sold just over 22,000 tickets at Canadian movie theatres alone. To put those numbers into perspective, consider that our own National Arts Centre recently sold 17,000 tickets over a month-long run of its holiday production of Oliver! – and that was the highest attended show in the English Theatre's history. Indeed, if War Horse takes off in Toronto, it is highly probable that far more Canadians will see a British National Theatre production than will see a NAC theatre production in 2012.

NT Live was not originally conceived as a way to colonize the world, however, but as a way of getting the theatre's programming out of London to more far-flung parts of Britain. "Our heroic mission is to reach as many U.K. taxpayers as possible, because it is those taxpayers who paid for the erection of the National Theatre and our continuing grant, such as it is," explains Starr.

It is overseas revenue that allows NT Live to do that and stay in the black.

"The international sales keep the U.K. mission afloat," explains Starr. "Our aim is to reach 1,000 cinemas regularly worldwide, of which the maximum would be 200 in the U.K. … It's those people in Reykjavik and across Canada and across Australia as well as the States that make it affordable."

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As for transferring full productions abroad, War Horse is the first time the National has produced on a stage in Canada - but, over the course of the past decade, it has become a regular fixture in New York. In addition to The History Boys, other works to head to the U.S. include The Pitmen Painters, The Seafarer and Coram Boy.

By 2014, the National expects – through stage productions and NT Live – to have doubled its global reach to three million spectators, almost half of which will be outside the U.K. That's astonishingly international for a "national" theatre – and, just as it was when Joey went off to the trenches of the Great War, it's the support from places like Canada that is helping Britannia to rule the waves.

War Horse is now in previews at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.

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