Feature: Animating a War Horse

Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

It is not characteristic of an actor to wish to shun the limelight. Stereotypically acting professionals are renowned for craving their names in lights or standing centre stage. Yet, for a National Theatre play that has run for eight years the performers seek the opposite – they need to disappear.

James Alexander Taylor, a puppeteer who is the heart of Joey in War Horse, has a critical role but needs to vanish on stage behind Handspring’s magnificent puppets. Taylor is doing his job perfectly when the audience do not realise the intricacies and technicalities of being a puppeteer: “You’re not supposed to know, you’re just supposed to be taken into that world.”

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo has been a phenomenal success having been seen by six million people worldwide and playing everywhere from Beijing to Johannesburg. The tale is of Joey, young Albert’s beloved horse, who gets sold into the cavalry for World War One. Albert desperate to find Joey again enlists underage and their courageous tale has brought many a full house to tears.

The magic behind the show lies in Handspring Puppet Company’s creation of the horses. Each horse is controlled by a system of three puppeteers – one on the head, the heart and the hind. Bringing the inanimate objects to life is based on Handspring’s focus on breath, so the actors’ breathing, their noises and manipulating the ears, tails and legs all create emotion.

Taylor says on the team of three inside the horse: “Each of you have an emotional and technical role to fulfil, and it’s when those two roles are fulfilled Joey comes to life.”

“It’s a very weird marriage you form with three people. It’s very strange!”

The three performers are unable to communicate on stage with each other so they all undergo intensive training with the puppets before rehearsing. Taylor speaks of the process of technically maneuvering the puppet to working intuitively with the others as a fantastic journey:

“It’s an incredible experience because there are no words spoken. You get out of horse at the end of the show and you haven’t said a word to each other for two hours, yet you’ve been running around on stage telling this wonderful story!”

The complex and layered noise of a horse takes particular teamwork with a horse’s lung capacity the equivalent of three human lungs. To achieve the sound one actor begins, and then the other continues the sound to create “elongated textured sound.”

Taylor has a musical theatre background, but for this role there are other demands. With Joey weighing eight stone, and more when there is a rider on top, all the puppeteers have to be in good physical shape to maintain their stamina for eight shows a week.

“When you start learning your body is doing such unnatural things, and you’re using such small muscle groups you have to allow your body time to condition, adapt and strengthen.”

There is also the necessity to be familiar with horses – their movements, their moods and their quirks. While Taylor says, “you never fully understand the psychology of horses”, the cast go down to the stables and last year went to the Household Cavalry. However, this realism is tinged with theatricality:

“If you think about horses they don’t really do much – they just stand around and eat. So we have to have a sense of artistic license within the theatre.”

Inevitably with such intense and heavy usages accidents and breakages will happen. Taylor describes when an incident happens: “We literally do a formula one style pit stop – walk off stage, leg will come off and we’ll put another one on.” The team of puppet technicians in London even hand the puppeteer a souvenir after such a break:

“Every time you do have a break the puppet technicians come and give you that bit of wood. There you go, here’s a memento for you – don’t do it again!”

The show is particularly poignant currently with the World War One commemorations. On the centenary a special show was performed and as Taylor observes: “Everyday until the 11 November 2018 is a 100 years anniversary of something that happening in World War One.”

“So everything is quite poignant.”

With War Horse’s booking now confirmed until February 2016, Handspring’s puppets have very successfully taken centre stage in this internationally renowned production.

Discover more about Handspring’s puppetry in this TED talk below.

 

War Horse is at the New London Theatre, for further information and  tickets please visit warhorseonstage.com