War Horse Australian Tour
Based on the beloved novel by Michael Morpurgo, the National Theatre of Great Britain’s Tony Award®-winning production of War Horse is coming to Australia.
At the outbreak of World War One, Joey young Albert’s beloved horse, is sold to the cavalry and shipped from England to France. He is soon caught up in enemy fire, and fate takes him on an extraordinary journey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone in no man’s land. But Albert cannot forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist, he embarks on a treacherous mission to find him and bring him home.
Michelle spoke with Puppet Director Gareth Aled about the incredible work that goes into making this huge horse puppet, and why this show is not to be missed.
Read the full interview below:
War Horse returns to Australia early in 2020 and the buzz about the amazing puppet has already begun. For those who are yet to see the show, what is it in your opinion that makes this puppet, Joey, so extraordinary? How many people operate Joey and what makes this puppet unique or revolutionary in the puppeteering field?
What I love most about theatre is the sheer endeavour of it and the potential for connection. This play requires a large company of people across all departments to work extremely hard to tell this story successfully.
At the centre of this event is a puppet horse called Joey that is living, breathing, thinking and feeling – we convince you strongly of that live. You forget that the puppeteers exist and end up believing in the individual character.
Adrian Kohler & Basil Jones of the Handspring puppet company are responsible for these incredible puppets. The company name comes from their belief that the life of the puppet springs directly from the hand of the puppeteer. Our puppeteers are in close and direct contact with the puppet and using principals and techniques they bring the puppet to life. The first principal being focus. Humans and animals are so observant to eye-line, if our puppeteers focus on the puppet directly you the audience are encouraged to look at the puppet. Simple and yet incredibly powerful. The second principal is Breath. All our puppets breathe. If something is breathing it conveys life and the rhythm of that breath will suggest thought and emotion. A third principal is muscularity and weight. Joey is made out of cane, mesh, leather, aluminium, steel - all of which have a very different relationship to gravity compared to the weight of a real “half thoroughbred, half draft” adult horse. Convincing you the audience of muscle, weight and power is a constant challenge.
As well as being the resident puppetry director, your personal background is in acting and directing. What drew you to the art of puppeteering initially and what keeps it exciting for you now? What are some things about the puppeteering industry and role of the puppeteer that audiences may not know?
As I started to pursue acting I fell in love with physical, ensemble storytelling.
When an actor walks on stage you the audience don’t doubt that they’re living, investing in their character & story can begin immediately. When a puppet enters a space, before any story is told, you the audience have to be convinced that it’s living. This endeavour & task often requires the puppeteer to work really hard technically & physically. If they do their job correctly an audience will forget that they exist. A large amount of generosity and a distinct lack of ego is required.
Puppeteering, acting and directing are different disciplines however ultimately these endeavours are acts of storytelling so for me personally I tend not to put them in separate boxes. I don’t worry about that too much. I am always inspired by the stories waiting to be told, the people I collaborate with and the audiences that will experience the work.
I believe Joey is not the only puppet in this play. Who are the others ? How many puppeteers are needed in war horse to make the puppets operate?
There are 23 puppets in total. Joey as a foal, Joey as an adult, a thoroughbred cavalry horse named “Topthorn”, mustering horses, swallows, crows, soldiers, a tank and a characterful Goose that lives on the Narracott farm.
We have a core team of puppeteers however in truth every member of the cast are required to puppeteer in some way. War Horse is a collaborative piece of theatre which requires an ensemble approach and spirit.
What is the most challenging aspect of making the puppets on stage seem real? How do you ensure that they become their own character?
It takes three puppeteers to operate Joey: a Head, Heart and Hind. They each have a technical task and an emotional indicator.
Technically the Head puppeteer maintains the head height and eye-line of the horse, emotionally they operate the ears via bicycle break leavers. If the ears both pin back it suggests fear, discomfort, agitation. If they soften forward and the head lowers it could convey curiosity, passiveness or relaxation.
Each time the Heart puppeteer moves they have the technical responsibility of engaging a trigger which articulates the knee joint and curls the hoof. Emotionally when the puppeteer bends his/her knees the horse breathes – our most important emotional indicator.
Finally the hind puppeteer, technically they maintain the gait of the horse. Our horses participate in cavalry charges and therefore are required to walk, trot and gallop. All three of which have a specific rhythmic pattern. Emotionally they use by bicycle break leavers to operate the tail.
These three puppeteers coordinate and communicate through a shared breath. An incredible act of trust and team work. Three performers creating one character.
What is it about this story that is so special and what can Australian audiences expect when they come and see the play? Why should we ensure not to miss War Horse this tour?
The universality of suffering, and the futility of war, themes of community, love, loss, loyalty. An animal that doesn’t engage with politics nor does it understand human language (English, French, German), it responds to tone, inter-nation, kindness and vulnerability. These ideas translate to all people, all over the world. I think this is partly why the play is so impactful.
Each component of our production is extraordinary but collectively War Horse is an evening at the theatre which resonates on a level greater than the sum of its parts. The rewards that come with it are extraordinary.
This play never ceases to move, surprise and inspire me.
Theatre can only be experienced live. The true magic of this production cannot be fully expressed in an interview or via still paragraphs and video, it can only serve to encourage you to sit down in an auditorium and watch the story unfold. Ours begins with a foal puppet horse coming to life and taking its first few vulnerable steps…
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
Yerma, Young Vic, London
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
South Island, New Zealand
Dream show to work on?
Would love to work on a play on Broadway.
Plays or musicals?
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
What’s next for you after this show?
The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, Bridge Theatre, London.
The Australian tour of War Horse kicks off at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne on 10 January, followed by Sydney from 15 February and Crown in Perth from 24 March. You can get your tickets here.