In Conversation With... Peter Becker | Interview

Monday 23 October 2017

Peter Becker is currently starring in the UK Tour of War Horse and is the first  German person to play Friedrich in the show. He sat down with me to discuss the show and his role...

Can you tell us a little bit about the rehearsal process for War Horse?

On the first day of rehearsals I was seriously overwhelmed by the sheer scale of things. We were rehearsing in a massive industry complex at Morden Wharf in London and I could not quite get my head around the enormity of the undertaking. There are so many people involved in creating the show! The actual stage floor was already installed, we were immediately provided with all the necessary props and costumes. It felt like stepping into a whole new universe. I was invited to  improvise with both horses in order to find out how to interact with them. Since the puppeteers knew everything about the anatomy and the natural behaviour of horses it all felt very natural. Like the audience I totally forgot they weren’t real horses I was dealing with in the matter of minutes. As the horses will solely react on the tone of our voices and the way we move I started speaking German to them. It was very interesting to learn that it didn't matter what language I used, they still understood my intentions and reacted accordingly. The attention to detail and the love that has been invested by the National Theatre is immense. 

During rehearsals we had a visit from the Imperial War Museum, providing us with in-depth information. We visited the King's Troops, who answered all questions about the military handling of horses. We had military training, shooting lessons, went to several exhibitions and prepared presentations on the First World War from English, German and French perspective.

What’s the most challenging part about bringing this story to life?

In Germany actors are mostly hired to play repertoire shows as a permanent cast member with one particular theatre where as over here it is common to play one show with a company every night. I first had to adapt to the different system. In addition, it is very challenging to interact with the horse puppets. On one hand it is very easy to believe they are real as they are so brilliantly manipulated, on the other hand you have to be technically very precise in order to achieve certain effects. Funnily for me the most demanding part was speaking English with a very strong German accent. I am half an Englishman and have a much less pronounced accent in real life. When playing, I got confused at first. It was very interesting to determine how different my brain works when I have to switch back and forth between the two languages. I feel a little delayed sometimes because I will often translate mentally before I react. My voice also sounds different when I speak English I believe.

Can you explain a little about your character?

When introduced at first, we get to know Friedrich as a high-ranking German military officer - shortly after capturing English soldiers. The challenge is to give the "enemy" - from an English perspective - a human face. In the course of the story, Friedrich will lose his beliefs in the concept of war and thus question his entire life. From a dramatic point of view, he reflects Albert's development in a nearly mirror-like manner: Whereas Albert continues to harden, Friedrich, in his desperate desire to defend his humanity, continues to soften through his experience in the war. What binds the two characters together is their unconditional love for the horses. 

Besides yourself, which actor in the production is going to blow people away?

I have the privilege of being part of an outstanding ensemble. It is unbelievable what talented actors our Casting Director Jill Green and Director Katie Henry have gathered to bring this enormous show to life. It is merely impossible to emphasise individual colleagues at this point as War Horse is a true ensemble play with everyone contributing equally to it’s success.

You’re the first German Friedrich in War Horse, what’s the experience been like? Do you feel an extra pressure taking on the role?

It is very exciting in many ways to meet this challenge. In Germany, the First World War is completely overhauled by the reprocessing and remembrance of the Second World War. Because of the Germans' war guilt, there is no collective mourning of the dead, we have no equivalent to Remembrance Day. Only in recent years have there been attempts to tell the differentiated history of German soldiers. I too grew up with the image of the unscrupulous murderer, who would literally stop at nothing. Now having the opportunity to give the German soldiers a human face is a great responsibility which stirs me every evening anew. It is important to point out that we are all human beings with the same fears, hopes and needs, especially in those times when we seem to be moving farther and farther apart. Besides, I am very much looking forward to perform before my English family for the first time. My aunts, uncles, cousins and grandcousins have so far only seen me on TV, never on stage before...

What do you think makes War Horse so special and lasting? 

To me War Horse almost represents a deep psychological inventory of the British nation. The songs put together by John Tams and performed by Bob Fox are deeply rooted in the DNA of the British people - partly going as far back as Celtic times. The story has a universal character whilst, very concretely taking place in a time that characterises Great Britain to this very day. The unspeakable suffering and the social upheavals, caused by the First World War, which interestingly is called The Great War over here, have in the most brutally possible way ushered in modern society. The audience is invited to witness the transition from 'innocent' country life to technologically alienation. Through the identification with the horses those unconscious experiences are being made accessible again. I believe it is a very cathartic experience for a lot of people.

What do you think will people be saying as they leave the theatre? 

No more wars, hopefully.

If you had a magic wand, which show would you do next? 

The place in Germany I come from (interestingly founded in the Middle Ages by an English monk from Malmesbury) is home to the largest German open-air  theatre festival - the Bad Hersfelder Festspiele. There I saw a stunningly current version of Cabaret last year. The piece has accompanied me since I was 15 as it was the first I ever performed in. Ten years ago I also had the chance to play the role of Ernst Ludwig in Vienna. I would very much like to have the opportunity to bring the time before the Nazis took over to life in English-speaking countries because there are so many obvious parallels to our present time, which I would love to explore - preferably in the role of the M.C.

If you could travel back to any era, when would you go to and why? 

Last year I had the opportunity to play in an exciting new series, which will soon be broadcast in England on Sky and in America on Netflix. It is called Babylon Berlin and like Cabaret it is set in the period of change between First and Second World War. An incredibly ambivalent era between joy and despair. A hysterical time in which a whole society is living on the edge. If I had the chance I would love to go back to the Twenties in Berlin to experience what people felt and how ultimate freedom could turn into repression so easily.

Finally, what’s your best piece of advice for aspiring performers? 

Our profession is increasingly internationalising. I am personally experiencing just how enriching it is to work in another country at the moment. In this respect, I would advise young actors: Travel as much as you can, learn different languages, the world is great and the possibilities are more diverse than ever before!

Thank you so much Peter for chatting with us! Make sure you catch War Horse on it's UK Tour.

Interview by Olivia Mitchell, Editor


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