Few shows have been as rapturously received as War Horse. Sired by the National Theatre in London, in 2007 it continues to run at the New London Theatre on the West End, and a Broadway production opened to tumultuous acclaim in April at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center. The show won best play at the Tony Awards and the Drama Desk Awards, plus Tonys for its direction, scenic design, sound, and lighting, and a special Tony for its puppetry. At the Drama Desks, it received a special award “for thrilling stagecraft” that went to the entire creative team: co-directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris; Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company; movement and horse sequences director Toby Sedgwick; composer Adrian Sutton; songmaker John Tams; set, costume, and drawings designer Rae Smith; lighting designer Paule Constable; sound designer Christopher Shutt; and animation and projection designer 59 Productions. Smith says that honor is the most meaningful—“the spirit of creative ensemble is so much a part of the show.”
Considerable vision was required to lift War Horse from off the page. Michael Morpurgo, the author of the best-selling 1982 children’s book from which Nick Stafford adapted the production, has said that he thought the National was “mad” to attempt a staging. It was foolhardy, as even a thumbnail description indicates. The show begins in Devon, in southwestern England, as World War I looms. Here teenage Albert (Seth Numrich) raises Joey, his willful horse. When Albert’s ne’er-do-well father, Ted (Boris McGiver), sells Joey to the British Army for duty in France, a dual odyssey begins: Joey’s, as the horse is drawn deep into the war and is shuttled between enemy combatants, and Albert’s, as he enlists to find his beloved friend amid the horrors of trench warfare. The show calls for more than 30 actors and five horses (plus a frisky, scene-stealing goose).
Portraying the animals, notably Joey and Topthorn, his best friend under fire, are adroitly manipulated puppets. In their presence, the audience, Constable says, plays a key role in the mystique of the show.
“It’s a journey through the imagination,” she says. “The audience sits down and sees someone drawing a picture, which appears on a video screen. What they’re seeing on the screen is a drawn world and not a literal one, which itself stimulates the imagination. Into this world a little baby horse puppet walks, which the audience sees as a little baby horse puppet—and as three puppeteers and a bit of stick and gauze. We always declare our hand and we don’t hide the puppeteers. A bucket and a piece of string is all War Horse is; there’s nothing leaden or heavy in it, just beautiful, simple things that we use to tell the story. We let the audience fill in the gaps and see that it’s just a bucket and a piece of string—but isn’t it delightful that it feels like so much more.”
While entrancing in theory, in practice what Constable calls “a high risk approach” meant that if anyone “dropped the ball, all you’d see is the bucket.” Needless to say the horse was always in front of the cart regarding the production; they are the foundation of the show, and South Africa-based Handspring was enlisted to bring them to life.
“Tom Morris at the National phoned up Handspring with the idea in 2004,” recalls Mervyn Millar, Handspring’s associate puppetry director. “Nearly ten years previously Tom had hosted Handspring's production of Faustus in Africa, with its sly puppet hyena, at a venue he was running in south London. And very recently he had come to Cape Town to look over Tall Horse, Handspring's spectacular collaboration with a traditional West African puppet company, the Sogolon troupe of Mali. Tall Horse was the epic (true) story of a giraffe that travelled from Egypt to Paris in the 19th century. But Tom thought he had found a new project for Handspring to work on at the National. Around this first connection, other creative team members were brought on.”
Two years of workshops followed. “We’d figure things out, like if the puppet was the main character what would he do onstage, what would the humans do, and how they would work together,” Smith says. “We determined that the space was all going to be exterior and landscape, as horses don’t have much need for interiors. Given the fast pace of the story, what kind of space would we need for all the characters? I learned that the puppets don’t move nearly as quick as actors, so we put a revolve in the floor; this way they could move in their own time but we could move them quickly.”
Stay tuned for additional coverage on the puppetry, as well as the lighting, projection, set, and sound design for War Horse.