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The magic behind War Horse’s spectacular puppetry

War Horse 2019 supplied
Photograph: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

There’s a certain kind of magic that happens in theatre when an audience chooses to believe in something they cognitively understand isn’t real. It’s called the “suspension of disbelief”, and it can be especially powerful when artists invite their audience to invest in an idea that really stretches their imaginative power.

In War Horse, the National Theatre of Great Britain’s globe-conquering adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel, a devoted group of actors ask audiences every night to believe that a cane frame covered in stretched fabric is a real-life horse called Joey, the protagonist of the play. Over two and a half hours, the play follows Joey’s journey from a peaceful existence in rural England with his young owner, Albert, to the darkest and most violent corners of Europe at the height of World War I.

It’s been a massively successful endeavour: the National Theatre’s 2007 staging is one of the most profitable productions of a play ever, playing long London and New York seasons and touring the world. It was turned into a successful movie by Stephen Spielberg in 2011, but the real horse who played Joey in the film couldn’t quite compete with the emotional tug of the puppet version, designed by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company.

“Because the audience has to put as much investment as we do on stage in believing the horse is real, I think they get quite a magical experience when, after a while, they forget that the puppeteers are there,” says Jo Castleton, who plays Rose Narracott in the international touring version coming to Australia.

Photograph: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

The puppet that represents Joey is operated by three puppeteers each night: one at the head, one at the heart, and one at the hind. But this is no ordinary panto horse: when at full flight, the 30-kilogram, life-sized contraption is an imposing force, galloping across the stage. Not only do they operate the physical component, the puppeteers create all the horse noises themselves – which is rather appropriate when you consider that a horse’s lung capacity is about the same as three humans’.

“If something is breathing, we can convince you of life, and the rhythm of that breath suggests how that being is feeling,” says Gareth Aled, the touring production’s resident puppetry director.

It’s a massive physical task for the puppeteers – Aled estimates the calorie burn from each performance is about the same as running a half-marathon – but it’s an emotional one as well. Each of the puppeteers has one “emotional indicator” for which they’re responsible: the puppeteer at the head uses bicycle brake levers to rotate and move ears to indicate when the horse is afraid, agitated or angry; the puppeteer at the heart bends their knees to move the horse’s body up and down to suggest breath; the puppeteer at the hind operates the tail using a lever.

But more important than mastering those technical elements is mastering the coordination among the three puppeteers to bring a horse to life. The puppeteers rehearsed together for two full weeks before the rest of the cast began rehearsals, so they could coordinate their movements and make every performance feel alive and fresh. There’s even some element of improvisation available to the puppeteers.

“You can’t go completely rogue and go for a trot around the stage at any moment, but we train our puppeteers to operate and live and breathe like a real horse,” Aled says. “This isn’t Pixar or Disney; in our story these animals are behaving realistically. They don’t understand English, French or German, they respond to tone and intonation.”

While the production is tightly drilled and visually spectacular, Castleton says each cast brings something unique to the material. She has now performed the production with two separate casts, staying on in her role as the cast changed.

Photograph: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

“The whole feel of the scenes and the staging of the scenes is completely different to the last cast I worked with,” Castleton says. “Which did my head in slightly when we were rehearsing one and doing shows with the other cast in the evening.”

And while casting is a challenge for any theatrical role, Aled says casting the puppeteers – some of whom are actors with no previous puppetry experience – requires a different approach.

“It’s all about finding a performer that has that sensibility and instinct, and the generosity to give over to this inanimate object, and believe that the life of this puppet is more alive and worthy of an audience’s attention than they are,” he says.

When everything falls into place, the effect is properly magical. Not only are audiences moved to tears at every performance, but sometimes that suspension of disbelief extends so far they genuinely believe they see things that were never there.

“When I speak to audience members,” Aled says, “they’ll say things like, ‘how did you get the eyes to blink?’ and I’ll say, ‘well, they don’t’. Or they’ll say ‘but there was a different puppet in the second half when Joey was tired and in the war’. No, it’s the same puppet.”

War Horse is at the Regent Theatre from January 10 to February 8.

Looking for more spectacular live shows? Check out the best musicals coming to Melbourne.

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