War Horse’s Rianna Ash on Puppeteering

War Horse, the unforgettable theatrical event from the National Theatre of Great Britain, based on Michael Morpurgo’s beloved novel, is returning to Australia in 2020.

The winner of more than 25 international awards, including the Tony Award for Best Play on Broadway, War Horse is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. This moving drama is a true display of inventiveness and creativity, filled with groundbreaking puppetry by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, who bring the titular horse (and others) to life on stage. It too eight months to construct a full set of puppets for the show, all handcrafted by a team of 14. The horse puppets in their final form weigh over 50 kilograms, and are operated by three puppeteers – one for the Head, the Heart, and the Hind.

Rianna Ash

Rianna Ash operates the head of the title horse, Joey. Having trained at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, she has performed in shows such as A Family Affair, Fanny’s First Play, Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (as Mary), Richard III, and Cymbeline. With War Horse returning to Australia next year, I spoke with Rianna about her experience in such an iconic and large scale production.

Could you tell me a bit about your theatrical history?

I’ve always wanted to be a performer since I can remember. I was a member of the National Youth Theatre and trained at Birmingham School of Acting for four years. I graduated in the summer of 2017 and have since toured Austria with a children’s play and performed in open air theatre. War horse is my first puppeteering role.

What drew you to puppets?

What attracted me to the puppeteering on  War Horse was the very physical nature, I’m very athletic and sporty and this job kind of combines that with my acting background.

How is directing puppets different from directing people?

Puppeteering joey is very different to any work I’ve done before as my previous work and training has been in Acting so I’m used to becoming a character and the process of not having lines to learn in rehearsals was bizzare. Although saying that it’s crazy how many similarities there are. I’m still having the thought and the responses but instead of putting them into my body I’m putting them into Joeys. Puppeteering joey makes you REALLY listen, as you’re responding to your surroundings each night, and listening is the fundamental of acting.

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

The puppetry in War Horse is much bigger than most shows – how has this been for you?

I would say the biggest challenge working on war horse has to be the initial learning of the technique and getting rid of human thoughts from my brain and thinking as a horse!

What has been the most exciting part of working on the show?

The most exciting part has been working with such a great team of people. There’s a huge number of people involved in creating this incredible show & learning off them has been really valuable. Also not to mention getting see incredible places around the world I’ve never seen before and seeing how different audiences in different countries react to the story.

What makes War Horse a unique show?

Three puppeteers make up joey or Topthorn. There’s a head, a heart and a Hind puppeteer and as a team we create the movements, personality and vocals of the horses. There’s not much ‘choreography’ as such, we are directed to be horses to react to tone and body language so our responses to what’s happening on stage can be totally different each night, this could be seen quite challenging as we can’t interact with each other through words so we have to work closely to pick up on Breath and impulse. My favourite moment in the shows are when all three of us have the exact same impulse to do something we’ve never done before. You have to literally breath and think as one.


The National Theatre and Lunchbox Theatrical Productions present War Horse 

Regent Theatre, Melbourne from 10 January 2020

Lyric Theatre, Sydney from 15 February 2020

Crown Theatre, Perth from 24 March 2020

For tickets and more information, please visit the War Horse website.

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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