Full steed ahead: ‘War Horse’ owes its magic to amazing puppets
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org December 13, 2012 8:12PM
When: Tuesday through Jan. 5
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Updated: January 17, 2013 6:05AM
The 20th century was torn by so many enormous conflagrations that World War I, which raged throughout Europe from 1914 to 1918, and was dubbed by H.G. Wells as “the war that will end war,” now seems nearly as remote as the Trojan War.
But with 16 million military and civilian casualties, and 20 million wounded, World War I remains one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. And the death toll for horses in that war — the last in which those creatures played a crucial role — also was staggering. It has been estimated that of the 1 million horses who were part of the “war effort,” only 65,000 returned home.
In many ways this fact is at the heart of “War Horse,” the Tony Award-winning play based on the best-selling 1982 children’s novel by acclaimed British writer Michael Morpurgo, adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, and originally directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris.
But what really gets the drumbeat going in this show — which has enjoyed long runs in London and at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater, and arrives Tuesday at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre in a national touring edition — is the thrilling gallop of its remarkable life-size, human-driven puppets created by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, founders of South Africa’s fabled Handspring Puppet Company. The great irony here is that the real horses used in Steven Spielberg’s 2011 film version of the story could not even come close to the powerful magic generated by these astonishing theatrical beasts whose “horse choreography,” devised by Toby Sedgwick, captures every twitch and whinny in ways far more affecting than their flesh-and-blood counterparts.
Morpurgo, who grew up in post-World War II London, began his career as a primary school teacher in Kent, and soon realized he had a gift for storytelling. Though initially an urbanite, once he married Clare Lane (eldest daughter of the founder of Penguin Books), he found himself spending most of his time in the country. There they established the Farms for City Children charity, which provides inner-city kids with an experience of the countryside and farm life. To date, about 120,000 childrens have visited the Morpurgos’ three farms in the Devon area. And it is on a farm in that same county that “War Horse” begins.
“All stories grow out of an accident, and this was a very happy accident, indeed,” said Morpurgo. “Back in the 1980s I went into a pub in a tiny village in Devon where three World War I soldiers were still living. I recognized one old bloke and asked him a single question — ‘What regiment were you in?’ — and he said: ‘I was there with the horses, when I was 17,’ and then he didn’t stop talking. His wife said he’d never told anyone what he told me, perhaps because he knew I was a writer. He then took me back to his house and showed me his medals. And immediately I knew I had a precious first-hand story.”
The very next day Morpurgo phoned the Imperial War Museum in London and asked how many horses had died in the war.
“I was shocked by the number,” he said. “And they died as men died — from bullets, exhaustion, drowning, barbed wire. And I thought: If I can tell the story of just one of those horses, people might know the war in a different way and begin to understand the universal suffering that occurred.”
“War Horse” follows the story of Joey, a foal bought in a contentious auction in Devon, and raised and cared for by a young boy, Albert, with whom he develops a powerful bond. Joey will undergo many severe trials as he is broken in, forced to pull a plow, sold to the cavalry at the outbreak of World War I, shipped across the English Channel to France (along with a stallion, Topthorn), driven into battle, and captured by the Germans who nearly destroy him by making him haul heavy artillery.
“The book didn’t sell terribly well,” Morpurgo said. “But then I got a call from [director] Morris at London’s National Theatre, who said his mother had given him a copy of it. He’d read it and loved the story, and he wanted to work with Handsprings. Two and a half years later, what I initially thought was a crazy idea became an iconic production.”
The word “iconic” is not hyperbole in this case, especially given the seamless interaction of a cast of 35, marvelous painterly animation and projection design, and the commanding — even-spotlight-stealing — stage presence of complexly jointed puppets, each brought to life by the “puppeteers” inside them.
“We knew Joey had to grow physically, change, be wounded, support riders and have a head sophisticated enough to hold the audience’s attention for a good two hours,” said Finn Caldwell, who served as associate puppetry director on the original production of “War Horse.”
“We also knew we needed performers who could manipulate the hand controls, coordinate the gestures and footwork, and sustain the intense stamina required to bring the skeletons of the two primary horses to life.”
As Caldwell recalled: “We studied the whole range of horse behavior — the breathing, the shifting of weight, the swish of the tail [accomplished with a bicycle brake mechanism], the rhythm of the legs in motion and in place, the displays of anger and submission, the way they are threatened when not approached from the side, because of the placement of their eyes.”
During a recent backstage tour of the Lincoln Center production of “War Horse,” I got an even closer view of the horses, guided by Matt Acheson, associate puppetry director of the New York and touring productions. He has been involved with the show’s transatlantic creative process since 2010, and has trained the collection of actors, dancers, athletes and veterans of Cirque du Soleil and “Blue Man Group” who have become the horses.
“We definitely look for the different personality types needed to play the front and back of the horse, as well as the puppeteer who leads the horse from outside,” said Acheson, who studied printmaking and performance art at the Art Institute of Chicago, got involved in the puppetry community about 15 years ago (“just as the art form was enjoying a rebirth”) and now creates work for his own small company in his Red Hook, Brooklyn, studio.
“The horse teams are put through an intensive three-week rehearsal period just so they can learn how to walk, gallop, breathe and figure out where the impulse to move must come from. They watch videos of horses and do many ‘trust’ exercises so that ultimately they can come together and make a single decision without ever actually talking to each other. The person in front is in the heart position and must be fiery, while the person in back must be strong and anchored. And it helps if the two inside are close to the same size to maintain balance.”
The “carcass” they wear, made at Handsprings’ South African workshop (which now keeps many people in a small town employed), is as light and flexible as possible, but it is still heavy (80 to 100 pounds, plus a rider at certain points). Made from cane bent into shapes that define the horse’s musculature, the puppets are lined with a mesh material that enables the performers to see through the horse. Leather strips are used for the tail. The horse’s eyes are made of hand-blown glass. The actors’ movement and breath, combined with subtle lighting, make the actual operating mechanisms seem to disappear.
Walk along the backstage corridors of the theater and you see those “carcasses” hanging along the wall, where they are hoisted off the performers by pulleys after each show. Special maintenance crews keep the heavily used creatures in good repair.
“We’ve got a structural ‘horse Bible’ for each of the puppets,” said Acheson. “And parts must be continually tightened, the elastics that serve as tendons must be checked, and we even have two heads and two sets of legs for each horse in case we need to make a mid-show replacement of parts.”
The essential challenge in all this is, as Acheson explained, “putting life into inanimate objects.”
“That is Handspring’s genius, and it really has everything to do with the breathing of the actors inside the horses. When it’s all working, the audience holds its breath along with them, and it becomes an incredibly emotional experience.”
That experience soon will be enjoyed by audiences in Australia, Berlin and possibly Japan, too, as other companies of the show are assembled. A South African production remains only a dream.
A couple of years ago, when asked what he would say to the first team of American actors as they began rehearsals, puppet creator Basil Jones replied: “I’m going to say to the puppeteers, ‘Please don’t think of this as a Broadway production, or a successful production, or a hit show. What we’re engaged in here is a time where we can explore new theater languages, where we have some respite from the word,and where we can look at languages of touch and languages of space.’ ”