An astonishing life-sized puppet steed is set to canter onto the Bord Gais Theatre’s stage as The National Theatre’s smash hit play War Horse returns April 10 – 27 as part of its 10th anniversary tour.
Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, the story recounts the experiences of Joey, a horse purchased by the Army for service in World War I France and the attempts of young Albert, his previous owner, to bring him safely home. Since receiving its world premiere in 2007, it has won 25 awards including a Tony for Best Play on Broadway and has been seen in 10 countries by over 7 million. It was also adapted into a film in 2011 by Steven Spielberg.
A horse’s lung capacity is the same as three people. Thus, Joey is operated by three puppeteers. He showed off a handful of party tricks to journalists at a preview on February 1. These included standing on his hind legs and snatching an attendee’s handbag with his teeth. With his astonishingly life-like movement, breathing and sounds, one could be forgiven for mistaking the puppet – crafted by The Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa – for the real thing.
Speaking at that preview, War Horse Residency Puppeteer Director Matthew Forbes explained: “He’s life-sized, beautifully handmade and brilliantly looked after by our puppet technicians and brought to life by the puppeteers.”
How does Joey work? Forbes explained that the puppet functions through a series of triggers built into the horse structure made from a cane frame and stretched fabric. Each puppeteer is then responsible for a distinct set of tasks to mimic a real steed.
The head puppeteer stays outside the horse and is focused on moving Joey’s head. Their most important roles are to make sure the steed’s face is raised so the audience can see where he is looking and to operate his ears. The latter help convey emotion. The more forward the ears are, the more relaxed the horse seems.
Inside the horse is first the heart puppeteer whose main function is to sell to the crowd the weight of Joey through careful manoeuvring of the front legs. Also, by shifting the puppet’s frame up and down, they give the audience a sense of how tired the animal is. The higher up, the sprightlier Joey appears.
Lastly is the hind puppeteer. They are responsible for the horse’s huge back legs, as well as his tail. All three of the puppeteers have also microphones attached to them throughout the show, enabling them to provide breathing and animal noises for Joey, on top of carrying his weight of 10 stone.
Speaking to Travel Ireland Magazine about the energy required for the show, heart puppeteer Michael Taibi said: “It’s physically demanding but also rewarding. When you first start, your body must get use to the strain but when you do, you learn to pace yourself throughout the show.”
According to hind puppeteer Derek Arnold, the National Theatre always employ a travelling physio with them and provide pilates classes. “You’re constantly looked after. They put so much effort into helping you maintain what you need.”
Both Arnold and Taibi had no puppeteering experience prior to War Horse, coming from an acting background. According the two, the latter was a huge help in bringing Joey to life. “You can tell if someone’s just operating the puppet with blank emotion in their human face. It’s conveyed in the puppet,” says Taibi. “But if someone’s really investing in it emotionally, that comes through the puppet and therefore to the audience.”
The three puppeteers – including Sam Clark as head puppeteer – believe the tactileness of Joey elevates the play. “What’s lovely about War Horse is they don’t hide the fact there are puppeteers there. What that does is invite the audience to believe in this make-believe world,” says Arnold.
“That’s why at the end of two hours, people cry and are emotionally connected. They are invested because they have put in two hours of work just like the people on stage.”
Joey really needs to be seen to be believed. Thankfully, Irish audiences will have a chance. Tickets are from €21.00 and are on sale now from Ticketmaster. For more details, see bordgaisenergytheatre.ie.