Riding high

The South African puppetry company behind the blockbuster play War Horse is pioneering a new kind of theatre. Ben East speaks to one of its founders

He’s possibly the most famous horse in the world. During London’s Diamond Jubilee river pageant in 2012, Joey galloped along a rooftop to salute Queen Elizabeth II. Last year, he was taken to Ypres in Belgium to mark the centenary of the First World War. He’s appeared at events around the globe, this March arriving in Dubai for a special evening of readings and music at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Joey has been taken into the hearts of millions of people as the star of the acclaimed stage adaptation of War Horse, the bestselling children’s story of a horse sent to a First World War battlefield, all of which is remarkable for a six-foot-tall puppet operated by visible puppeteers.

To understand why Joey has had such a powerful impact on our imaginations, you have to go to South Africa. After enjoying success with Tall Horse – an unrelated production about a giraffe taken to France – the Cape Town-based Handspring Puppet Company was asked by the National Theatre in London to workshop an idea to bring War Horse to the stage.

“It’s hardly the kind of play you take off the shelf as a fully formed piece of theatre,” remembers Basil Jones, Handspring’s Executive Producer, who formed the puppet company with Adrian Kohler in 1981. “We were feeling out whether it would be possible. It was a challenge: the narrative in the book is told by the horse. So it had to function and live – even be ridden – as a horse that was credible enough for the audience to believe they could understand its thoughts and feelings.”

We didn’t want the puppeteers to act jealousy. We wanted them to feel and think jealousy through the puppet

To achieve that, Handspring ripped up the rulebook. The general consensus is that blockbusting theatre productions have to deal in grand gestures, but Jones had read Temple Grandin’s book Animals in Translation. In it, Grandin argues that the ‘normal’ human brain filters out thousands of small details, creating an unintentional blindness that animals and autistic people do not suffer from. So Handspring came up with a system of puppet manipulation based on breathing, where the smallest micro-movements would give Joey his complexity, even though it was a gamble that the ‘normal’ human brain would see them. It would be in these moments when he would feel alive, rather than when he galloped across stage.

“Using Grandin’s ideas, we decided to treat the audience as autistic, in a way, and assume they could perceive the tiniest movement. Because our audiences read every small movement, we could convey a lot of emotion. An inadvertent movement can be misunderstood, so you’re playing with high stakes. The puppeteers delivered fabulous performances way beyond what had been achieved in big shows before.”

They certainly won over Michael Morpurgo, the author of War Horse. “I was told the horses were to be puppets – life-size puppets. I could not possibly imagine how that might work. But a meeting with Adrian and Basil convinced me that it might just be something groundbreaking,” he said.

The three puppeteers who manipulated each horse became better than he ever imagined. Jones calls their work an “emotional prosthesis”, but there was something alchemical happening when they moved the puppet, to, he says.

“When it was premiered in 2007, the puppetry was high expertise, but it soon turned into almost a transcendental experience for the manipulators and the audience. Say Joey is meant to be jealous. We didn’t want the puppeteers to act jealousy. We wanted them to feel and think jealousy through the puppet.”

War Horse
Handspring’s founders, Basil Jones (left )and Adrian Kohler, rehearsing Neil Bartlett’s play, 'Or You Could Kiss Me' at the National Theatre in London

“It sounds like mystical nonsense. But when the puppeteers achieved that state, there was a kind of magic: the audience understood the horse. It’s a different attitude to performance and a philosophy of manipulation that is about layering and depth – that’s what War Horse delivers.”

And that was despite Jones not being that interested in the idea of people forgetting Joey is a puppet – it wasn’t just about making Joey realistic.

“One of the things about a puppet is that it’s always struggling to live. You might not know how hard the puppeteers are working, but somehow you feel it, and I like the fact sometimes you see them. The hard work to keep this horse ‘alive’ parallels the little struggles you have in your own life, every day, that you exper-ience as epic and huge.

“These struggles might be just grasping for keys in the bottom of a handbag. A puppet is a metaphor for that the struggle to to live. So I think that’s what makes puppetry so emotionally powerful for people – as long you have really good puppet manipulation.”

Which Handspring has. It is now considered a world leader in puppetry, and the work it did on War Horse has been seen by more than six million people. It’s been an incredible eight years for Jones, so much so that he and Kohler are taking a well-earned rest.

“We’re not even thinking about theatre this year,” he says. “We’re just making art, taking us back to art school.” War Horse, however, will continue to run and run.