War Horse: Out of the ordinary

Internationally acclaimed play War Horse is heading down under with seasons in  Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. AussieTheatre’s David Allen caught up with some of the overseas cast and creative team at Lyric Theatre Sydney recently for an in-depth chat about the show. 

War Horse - Photographer David Wyatt
War Horse – Photographer David Wyatt

The upstairs foyer of the Lyric Theatre is a good place to be on a day like today. The sun is streaming in and the view over the harbour and the precinct of The Star is pristine – it could be summer. It’s also the last place you’d expect to see a horse, and yet that’s what is trotting towards me.

Of course it’s not a real horse. The star of the play War Horse is Joey, a rusty brown horse created with such subliminal ease that I am completely unaware of the three puppeteers manipulating the “animal” in front of me.

Joey walks, canters, paws, sniffs and winnies and at one point rears back and I forget myself and take a step back just to be safe. The workmanship involved in the puppet itself is phenomenal. I find myself gingerly approaching (I don’t want to spook the horse) and just walking alongside Joey to examine the wicker flanks, so well-shaped and solidly crafted. The giant glass eye nearest to me seems to follow me as I move and express something so unsuspectingly equine that I almost want to pat the flank reassuringly.

“The puppeteers are breathing together and that’s how their co-ordinate their movements” Finn Caldwell, the Associate Puppetry Director tells me later. He also played the second lead horse Topthorn in the original West End production at London’s National Theatre which started the War Horse phenomenon in 2007.

There are three puppeteers involved in bringing Joey to life, the head, who stands externally, the heart and the hind, both of whom are strapped into the puppet itself with harnesses. They’re movements are carefully co-ordinated as is their mindset.

The most powerful thing about observing Joey in motion is the complete lack of distinction between these puppeteers. The eye doesn’t wander between them because there is only one apparent consciousness presented and it’s that of the horse.

War Horse - Photographer David Wyatt
War Horse – Photographer David Wyatt

In conversation, Finn Caldwell is fascinating. He still carries (after five years involvement in War Horse) the animation of someone passionate about his work and fascinated by its aspects and intentions.

“The relationship between the actors and the puppeteers is so important. The actors need to remember that they are dealing with a horse – an animal – and yet at the same time remember that physically, this is a puppet”, he said.

“The horses convey a great deal of strength and solidity on stage and yet they are still quite fragile and quite precarious. If I were to make a rush at them I could topple them over quite easily, and yet on stage they need to maintain that presence of strength.”

War Horse is unquestionably one of the most critically successful pieces of theatre of the 21st century and carries with it a critical and audience response of overwhelming awe and respect. It also stands alone as the first mainstream play that began with the specific intention of being a vehicle for a puppet.

“Nick Stafford at the National Theatre wanted to create a show featuring the puppets of Handspring Puppet Company, and his mother suggested the Michael Morpurgo novel War Horse.”

Handspring is a South African based company and War Horse is without a doubt their magnum opus with two life sized horses and many other animals created expressly for the show to represent various characters – two of them, the leads.

War Horse is about a horse – Joey – and in that sense it remains quite distinct. He is the leading character.”

[pull_left]Handspring have of course done the most remarkable job creating these puppets. And there are many more than just the one horse[/pull_left]

“Handspring have of course done the most remarkable job creating these puppets. And there are many more than just the one horse. There are moments in the play where the image of a multitude of horses lined up and charging have to be presented and puppets had to be created to express that on stage. There are also foals and sparrows – many animals and they’re all just flawlessly brought to life.”

The central character of War Horse, Joey, is a young horse in Devon who is bought from a farming family by the military for service in World War One. It’s a spectacular war story with heart and humility. Yet at its core, it also remains the story of the bond between the horse and the people around him – primarily his young English owner Albert Narcott, who is forced to part with this animal he has trained and nurtured and saved from grim circumstances. The play travels from Devon to the grim battlefields of France and back again and the play creates these dramatic shifts and the epic scenery that go with them with a vividness that has become legendary.

War Horse - Photographer David Wyatt
War Horse – Photographer David Wyatt

War Horse is a coming of age story and one that possesses a concept that can only be described as inherently part of the Australian culture – mateship. In this sense, it has had from its beginning on the stage of the National Theatre in London, a connection with audiences that continues to strengthen and endure.

I ask the puppeteers responsible for the incredible puppetry/equine display I have just seen (David Emmings [head], Ross Green [heart] and Ian Piears [hind] from the London cast) about the audience responses to the play.

“The audience dynamic shifts when the horses come on stage” says David. “We’ve had people in the audience burst into tears just watching Joey.”

“It’s known as a very emotional experience” said Finn Caldwell of War Horse. “The audience response has been overwhelming from the start and so many people have come out having had the most incredible connection to the play and to the story.”

Caldwell explained that the success of the piece was never guaranteed. Even novelist Michael Morpurgo considered the piece something of a risk, expressing his doubts at the capacity for his novel to be a stage play. But through the development all involved knew the play was something really quite out of the ordinary.

[pull_left]It was really after the Queen came to see it that it became what it has become now in the public eye[/pull_left]

“After it opened on the West End we weren’t sure how it would go. There were some nights when the house would only be half full and we’d say ‘I don’t know, it might close’. It was really after the Queen came to see it that it became what it has become now in the public eye and of course it’s still running now on the West End and Broadway and Canada and soon Australia”, he said.

War Horse will open in Melbourne on December 31st followed by a Sydney season commencing on Marcgh 16 and a Brisbane season commencing on July 6. The show will feature an entirely Australian cast – including the puppeteers.

The Australian cast do not begin rehearsals until September, but Ian Piears, one of Joey’s operators today, lights up when talking about the Australian auditions.

War Horse - Photographer David Wyatt
War Horse – Photographer David Wyatt

“Some absolutely fantastic talent has been seen during the Australian auditions. It’s been a truly diverse field, people from music theatre, actors and dancers have all been in to audition for Joey and the other animals. It’s really going to be a spectacular production.”

Sitting talking to the three puppeteers is fascinating as even out of the puppets confines they’re still very much in sync. Movements and statements flow seamlessly between them as they discuss the play, their history in various productions and where they as professionals have come from.

“I’m a dancer primarily” says Ian. “I was actually working in the front of house when I found I would be joining the company.” I say this will give many of my theatrical friends working as ushers and usherettes hope, and he laughs.

“It does happen! You can go from front of house to backstage.”

Ian, David and Ross have all been in War Horse for some time now and I ask about the physical nature of the work they are doing. Joey looks heavy and the movements they have just shown me can only be hard work.

“It’s very tiring” says David (the head). “There aren’t many moments when Joey is offstage. There’s a couple of ten minute gaps when you can get out of the puppet and there’s a thirty minute intermission. But he is the lead character. You’re on stage and moving for most of the show.”

“There are various teams who play the horses,” says Finn Caldwell, the puppetry director. “Joey is heavy and always moving. At one point a character runs and jumps onto him. It’s hard work! And even as you are creating the physicality of the horse, you’re maintaining your own stance as well to prepare for the weight and the physical movements.”

“There’s a lot of focus involved,” says Ross [heart]. “We’re breathing together. That’s how we co-ordinate between the three of us. But you’re also working with the actors and co-ordinating with them. Sometimes after a show you’ll say ‘you put your weight a bit further forward tonight, just remember to position yourself there’. And of course I can feel the other two moving. If Ian moves even slightly I can feel it and I adjust accordingly.”

I ask about the work the actors do to deal with acting on stage opposite a puppet/horse and how the two play off each other.

[pull_left]On stage you have to remember that you are a horse and to respond accordingly to what is happening around you[/pull_left]

“There’s a great deal of observation involved for us” says Ian [hind]. “You study the movements and the reactions of horses. And on stage you have to remember that you are a horse and to respond accordingly to what is happening around you. You can’t respond to what the actors are saying or doing outside of how it directly affects Joey. If an actor is walking towards you or if there is a particularly loud noise – it’s something you can react to.”

War Horse has, since it’s West End and Broadway openings also become a Steven Spielberg movie with six Oscar nominations to its name – including Best Picture.

“Of course the movie is very different to the stage play” says Finn Caldwell. “There are some things a movie can do that just cannot be done on stage. And yet,” he smiles “there is something about a live stage show that you just cannot replicate on film. And I believe that is why War Horse continues to run and continues to have such a powerful effect on audiences.”

“Steven Spielberg saw the show in London” says David, “and he came backstage afterwards and was very appreciative of the show and to all of us.”

“He called us geniuses” says Ian glowingly of himself and his two colleagues. “Now that’s something you can brag about when you go back to the café. Steven Spielberg said I’m a genius”, he laughed.

War Horse will play limited runs throughout its Australian tour. Tickets to the Sydney season went on sale on Monday July 23. I already have mine. This is a production out of the ordinary – an incredible piece of theatricality and simultaneously a remarkable story. I will walk in with unashamedly high expectations and a certainty they’ll be met.

War Horse looks set to be the production to see in 2013.

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