Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

War Horse: More than just horse play

Each horse in War Horse are operated by three people, whose aim is to disappear into the costume to make the creature seem as real as possible. Photo / Supplied
Each horse in War Horse are operated by three people, whose aim is to disappear into the costume to make the creature seem as real as possible. Photo / Supplied

The acclaimed stage show War Horse, which mixes life-size puppetry and actors, has sold more than 1.3 million tickets in London's West End and more than a million in North America. And its heart-rending story has caused a spike in the tissue market on both sides of the Atlantic.

Now Australian company Global Creatures (the animatronic wizards behind Walking With Dinosaurs and How to Train Your Dragon) have saddled up with Britain's National Theatre to bring the show to Australia and New Zealand in 2013.

But unlike Global Creatures' previous productions, there are no robotics involved in War Horse - the four-legged creatures are intricate puppets moved by actors and puppeteers. Using that old art form as a storytelling device resonates thematically with its story of cavalry horses facing obsolescence - or worse - on the battlefields of World War I.

The birth

It began with the 1982 novel of the same name, written by English author Michael Morpurgo who wanted to tell a story that illustrated the universal tragedy of war, and chose to write from the perspective of a horse named Joey.

In the mid 2000s, Tom Morris, associate director of Britain's National Theatre company was looking for a story that could work as the basis for a stage collaboration that involved puppetry, and stumbled across the book.

After several years of development, War Horse the stage show first opened in 2007, and has become one of the most successful new National Theatre productions in the five years since. Director Steven Spielberg was so impressed when he saw the show that he decided to turn War Horse into a blockbuster film, which was released last year to great success as well, and the book has now become a part of the British school curriculum. From a puzzling idea to an international phenomenon, the stage show creators have been surprised and delighted by its global success.

"War Horse was never about making a hit, or an international blockbuster," laughs Finn Caldwell, the associate director of puppetry. "It came together through a series of accidents, chances, mistakes that led to it. It's a really homegrown piece of theatre."

The story

War Horse is the story of a young Devon boy named Albert and his much-loved horse Joey. On the eve of World War I, Joey is grimly sold to the cavalry, and shipped to France, and so begins an epic journey for both Joey and Albert, as they take drastic measures to find their way back to one another.

"It's about conflict in the broader sense - on a domestic scale, and a global scale as well," CEO of Global Creatures Carmen Pavlovic explains. "It's about what it means to go to war, and to return from war, and it's also about bonds that exist between a mother and son, or between comrades, or between a boy and his horse.

"The first time I saw the production on the West End I was blubbering into a tissue the whole night, because not only was I blown away by the puppetry but also the tragedy of the story. And the show reminded me of all those women who sent their sons off to war, and spent every day missing them and worrying. And I think everyone has some sort of Joey in their heart, and will find the story resonates. Plus the strength of the Anzac spirit is significant in both New Zealand and Australia and hopefully gives the show a special relevance to local audiences."

The puppets

Handspring, the South African company that crafts the beautiful and remarkably lifelike creatures that take part in the show (two horses, a foal, two swallows, two crows and a goose) played an integral role in the journey from page to stage for War Horse.

Handspring was started in Cape Town 1981 by four art school graduates, with puppetry always at the heart of their productions. Two of those founding members, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, slowly built an international reputation and in 2004 developed a large-scale production called Tall Horse about a giraffe, which caught the attention of National Theatre associate director Tom Morris.

Morris went to South Africa, along with the National Theatre's executive producer to broach the idea of collaboration.

The question remained however, what project would they work on? It wasn't until Morris' mother mentioned the novel War Horse that the idea was born.

"A year later we were having workshops and it started to dawn on us how large the scale of the show would be," Caldwell recounts. "We couldn't just make a pretty horse that the actors could move around and tell the story around, this was the central character.

"Only he wasn't going to speak, so it had to be his movements that would captivate the audience for more than two hours. He needed to be able to pull a plough, he was going to be injured, he was going to grow up and change his physicality, and he was going to be ridden - someone was going to sit on top of him."

But they did work it out. The first construction ideas for Joey simply involved two short ladders, a plank of wood and some backpack straps, but they have evolved a long way since - the puppets used now are painstakingly handcrafted out of treated cane, stretched georgette, steel, leather, and cables, and to make a whole set for a production takes the Cape Town workshop about a year.

The performers

Playing a horse requires a team of humans. Not only are there three fit young men sharing the same costume and character, but the aim for the actors is to disappear into the costume.

One must become the back legs and tail, another operates the front legs and leads the breathing, and then the third stands next to the puppet, operating his head, ears, eyes and mouth.

As Matt Forbes, who plays the "head" in the current London production explains, they have spent many hours studying horses in order to try and pull off a believable performance.

"We all work with the King's Troop, which does all of the big parades and so on in London, and they've taught us to understand horse movements.

"And we also worked with a guy called Monty Roberts who is a horse whisperer, so he explains horse psychology to us, teaches us about how they think. Because it's one thing to make it convincingly look and move like a horse, but it's another thing to convince people that the horse is real, that it's thinking for itself, and make them forget we're there."

The trio also do a lot of breathing exercises together to get their rhythm in sync - for not only is it important that the animal breathes, but they have to mimic the sounds Joey would make.

"At the beginning of the rehearsals it's pretty interesting," Forbes laughs.

"We were given CDs which have all sorts of horse noises on, and we just sort of go from that. They say a horse's lung capacity is the same as three men, so in theory we should be able to create noises of about the same length or volume."

As the main character, Joey is on stage for two hours of the two and a half hour show, which is quite a psychological and physical challenge.

"It's an epic journey for the audience and the puppeteers. Being on stage for all that time is brilliant, because you do experience the entire story.

"It's an assault on all the senses for everyone, and the whole design of the show is really evocative, so you do feel like you're experiencing a war in some ways. Of course we always come out for our bow sweating," he grins.

They have done an outstanding job, and as they trot around Aotea Square in broad daylight, entertaining curious members of the public with some playful nudges, the illusion is highly convincing. Just imagine the effect when the production comes to the Aotea Centre stage in August next year.

What: The National Theatre stage production of War Horse
When: August 2013
Where: Aotea Centre


- NZ Herald

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