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Building a Better 'War Horse'

by Jerome Weeks 7 Sep 2012 7:56 AM

The World War I novel had the horse as narrator. But a talking horse onstage would look like Mr. Ed. Enter the geniuses at Handspring Puppet Company who built the amazing creature in the smash-hit show, War Horse.


Albert saying goodbye to Joey, his horse, in War Horse

The stage show War Horse opens at the Winspear Opera House next Wednesday. It started as a young-adult novel about a farm boy and his horse during World War I. It became a Stephen Spielberg movie last year. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports what makes the London stage show so powerful is its ground-breaking use – of puppets.

  • KERA radio story:
  • Expanded online story:

In this scene, the young Albert parts with Joey, the horse he raised from a foal. Albert’s father sold Joey to the British Army, which desperately needs horses for its cavalry in World War I.

[sounds of horse snorting and shaking its harness]

Albert: “Now the thing is, Joey, you’re going to have to go away with that man there, Capt. Nicholls. And I want you to do yourself proud. You drive those Germans back and then you come home. I, Albert Narricott, do solemnly swear that we shall be together again.”

Onstage, the actor playing Albert is not talking to an actual horse. He’s talking to a giant contraption made of bent cane reeds, wood, fabric and leather. The entire mechanism requires three puppeteers to manipulate it, and the audience can see them doing this the whole time. In addition to the Tony Awards that War Horse won for best play, direction and design, the inventors of this puppet won a special achievement Tony. It’s a stylized horse, almost an abstract sculpture. But it’s also remarkably expressive. Joey’s head moves, the ears swivel, the tail twitches. He even seems to breathe.

But in the original novel, Joey also narrates the events. Author Michael Morpurgo wrote War Horse from the horse’s point of view.

Morpurgo: “I needed to have a perspective on the First World War that belonged to no nation – if I wanted to write the story that I intended to write which was about the universal suffering in that war.”

Yet the horse as the story’s narrator was the first thing the adaptors threw out. Basil Jones is co-founder of Handspring Puppet Company, the creators of Joey. Jones speaks from Capetown, South Africa, where Handspring is based.

Jones: “I think we very quickly realized that having a talking horse on stage was just not going to work.”

Handspring was brought in to create Joey because director Tom Morris of London’s National Theatre wanted to showcase their work. Deciding not to have the horse as the narrator put even more weight on their puppet to carry the story forward.

When they showed Morpurgo the first designs, the novelist wasn’t convinced it would work. He explains the challenge the team faced.

Handspring Puppet Company co-founders Basil Jones (left) and Adrian Kohler (right)

Morpurgo: “We had to have a horse which’d have extraordinary presence. Without being realistic, everything had somehow to give the impression of nobility and power.”

It took two years of experimentation for Thom Morris, Handspring and the National Theatre Lab to develop their stage horse. It’s something of a testament to state-subsidized theater: Very few companies in the entire world could have afforded the time, expense and risk that War Horse entailed, a risk that has paid off big, now that British arts are facing government budget cutbacks — while War Horse has become an international hit.

Basil Jones says the many months of work didn’t involve just researching and replicating the musculature and movement of a horse. They had to train the onstage puppeteers in horse-puppet meaning.

Jones: “They had to learn to manipulate at such a high level of artistry. Every movement they did had possible meaning and would have the audience trying to interpret that meaning.”

As a result, our experience of Joey onstage is more like our experience of a real horse – more like it than in the novel, which just has Joey tell us everything. With the help of the actors and puppeteers, we can intuit Joey’s feelings, we understand his actions.

Morpurgo: “The audience makes this effort, this intellectual and emotional effort to engage with these puppets. This is about the will to believe, and the honesty of the relationships he makes with the people around him and how important that is to us, to witness loyalty and courage and suffering.”

War Horse is not powered by a simple sentimentality about animals, humans and sacrifice. With our imagination and empathy, we project the character of a horse onto this elaborate device. We help create Joey. We give him life.

Which is what makes the horrors of World War I all the more real.

[sounds of trumpets and drums, shouted “Charge!” Sounds of guns. “Oh my God! Machine guns!” Shouts. Music gets louder.  Crescendo. Explosion. Fade.]
Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler explain the genesis of Joey to TED:

The Making of War Horse: