Following the announcement that the National Theatre’s War Horse will premiere its UK regional tour with us next year, some of our team travelled to London to attend the tour’s official launch – which included the chance to actually meet Joey the war horse himself. Marketing Publications Officer Kate Evans was among those being introduced.
“I’m going to tell you a few things now, because once Joey comes out you won’t be listening.” Jimmy Grimes is the Associate Puppetry Director for War Horse, and he seems remarkably relaxed about the fact that he’s about to be upstaged by a puppet horse. It’s probably something everyone associated with War Horse has had to get used to. “You can’t have an ego with this show,” James Backway, who plays Joey’s ‘human’ Albert, tells me later, “It’s all about the horse.”
A few minutes later, Jimmy’s prediction is coming true. “I could be saying anything right now,” he laughs, as we all ooh and ah over Joey. It is, indeed, all about the horse. For anyone who has somehow missed out on the War Horse phenomenon, it’s an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel about Devon farm boy Albert, and Joey, the horse he raises and trains from a foal, who is requisitioned by the army and sent to France at the start of the First World War. Despite being underage, Albert enlists in order to find his beloved equine companion.
Michael says he felt for many years that a stage adaptation of War Horse would be impossible (it is, after all, a story told in the first person, by a horse). But that changed with the involved of the South African Handspring Puppet Company, who brought Joey and the other animals in the story to life. Speaking at the launch, Michael described the moment he was shown a video of a Handspring giraffe puppet, which not only brought tears to his eyes (“I thought, you’re crying at a giraffe, what on earth is wrong with you!”) but convinced him to “put yourself in the hands of National Theatre”, and let the adaptation of War Horse go ahead.
Although they’re not conventionally life-like, the puppets are amazingly effective. Even close-up and out of the immersive context of a performance, what’s striking is how quickly you forget the three operators, and simply accept the puppet as an animal. It’s a feeling that’s shared by the cast. James Backway says: “Even in the very early stages of rehearsal, you just feel ‘Woah, that’s a horse’. I did one exercise where I had to calm Joey down when he was angry, and everybody said, ‘that was great, how you reacted to him’, but that’s partly because a bit of me was genuinely scared I was going to get charged by this horse!”
Although the fact that we quickly forget about them is symbolic of their success, it would be wrong not to talk about the remarkable people who operate the puppets. Each horse requires three people to operate – separated into ‘roles’ of the head, the heart and the hind of the horse. The actions performed by the puppeteers are split into physical and emotional tasks. For example, the ‘hind’ puppeteer will operate the horse’s back legs (the physical task) and his tail (an emotional indicator). It takes around two months of training before they’re ready to perform, and these are physically demanding roles. When Joey’s hooves hit the ground they sound like they have the full weight of a horse behind them, but in reality all of the puppet’s weight is supported by its operators.
Michael Morpurgo says of them: “They work so, so hard. You should hug them, there is nothing there to hug except muscle and bone!” It’s a tempting idea Michael, but that kind of thing can get a girl into trouble…
Of course, this was only initial introduction to the world of War Horse. The great thing about being the launch venue for this tour is that the War Horse company will be spending two weeks rehearsing with us before their opening night – giving us the chance to get know Joey and his friends even better. We can’t wait!
War Horse: Fri 15 Sep-Sat 14 Oct 2017. To book go to marlowetheatre.com