I have something to admit. I, the writer of these features and photographer of these photographs… am in love with puppets. It’s worrying I know, but there is nothing else in theatre that gives humans, young and old, such a sense of wonder and fun.
I have dabbled with puppets myself, and one particular instance stands out as demonstrating the point I have just made. I was playing around with one of my creations in an area just outside a theatre when a man, whose reputation for being socially awkward is quite well known, walked by. I turned and with the puppet, waved at him. Without missing a step, he turned and waved back, not as you would to an idiot waving a puppet at you, dismissively and humorously, but instead, he waved underarm, cutely and playfully, as one would to a child.
It was in that moment that I realised the power of puppets; their ability to speak to everyone and touch us in their own special way.
War Horse is famous for its puppets. Since its first performance in 2007 at the National Theatre in London, the show has performed all over the world, including Australia in 2013, and has become somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. The setting, the First World War, and puppetry have made it an almost universally accessible piece of theatre.
A media call for a play can be difficult. The staging is less dynamic than a musical’s “show stoppers,” and so getting the angles and images that the creative team have crafted can be difficult. Two people standing and talking doesn’t translate too well to film.
But then, in the darkness, the heavy clump of hooves. The sound gives a sense of impending weight and mass, and sure enough, as the shape of a horse slowly forms in the darkness of the wings and it features slowly take shape as the stage lights strike its frame, a childish buzz runs through me.
They are huge. Monstrous even. And even standing ten rows back as I am, it is easy to forget that it requires three puppeteers to control these magnificent beasts. The incredible part is, that even though the men and women who craft the movement of these animals are on obvious display, you very quickly blank them from your view, instead giggling stupidly at how the horsey just gave a really sassy look to the bad man.
The story is well known. A simpler time and a great awakening. But it is the telling and the characters that make this show great. I marvel at the puppets, but like watching a magician when you know how the trick is done, I can still find my self lost in the illusion.
War Horse is now is season at Sydney Lyric Theatre.