For an actor to spend weeks immersing themselves in a character is not unusual. For a set designer to do so is extraordinary. But that is just how Rae Smith prepared for War Horse, the award-winning hit play based on the novel by the former children's laureate Michael Morpurgo, which follows a young soldier and his horse across the battlefields of the First World War. With more than 200 sold-out performances at the National Theatre, the production is about to move to London's West End.
"I spent weeks pretending to be a First World War captain," Smith explains. "I found a combination of personal and collective memories, looking at family photographs and archive material in the Imperial War Museum. Once you fill your head with images, your imagination can take over."
Her methods paid off: the play's success has been due in no small part to her dynamic set design and her fruitful collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company, which provided the larger-than-life horse puppets that stunned audiences and critics with their combination of realism and expressivity.
The designer, who bagged an Olivier award for her efforts, says that working with puppets inspired her to think in new ways about the set: "It made me want to do something much more fluid and mobile. For instance, the backdrop became a giant piece of paper that was meant to be torn from one of the character's sketchbooks on to which we projected hundreds of images that I drew through his eyes." (Smith's sketches are currently being exhibited in the foyer of the National Theatre.)
Smith's next project will be All's Well That Ends Well at the National. It must be difficult to work so hard to achieve the perfect formula, then jettison it all to find something new. "I suppose," she laughs. "It's a bit like boyfriends."
'War Horse': New London Theatre, Drury Lane, London WC2 (020 7452 3000), from Saturday to 26 September