“I’m going to tell you a few things now, because once Joey comes out you won’t be listening.” Jimmy Grimes is the Associate Puppetry Director for War Horse, and he seems remarkably relaxed about the fact that he’s about to be upstaged by a puppet horse. It’s probably something everyone associated with War Horse has to get used to. As James Backway, who plays the farm boy who trains Joey, the war horse of the title, tells me later: “You can’t have an ego with this show. It’s all about the horse.”
My day job is in the marketing department of the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, which next year will be the opening venue of the UK regional tour of the National Theatre’s War Horse. That’s why I was at the official launch event for the tour – sitting on a slightly wobbly bench on the stage of the New London Theatre in Drury Lane, waiting to meet a horse.
Only a few minutes after he made it, Jimmy’s prediction comes true. “I could be saying anything right now,” he laughs, as we all ooh and ah over Joey. It is, indeed, all about the horse. For anyone who has somehow missed out on the War Horse phenomenon, it’s an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel about Devon farm boy Albert, and Joey, the horse he raises and trains from a foal, who is requisitioned by the army and sent to France at the start of the First World War. Despite being underage, Albert enlists in order to find his beloved equine companion.
Michael says he felt for many years that a stage adaptation of War Horse would be impossible (it is, after all, a story told in the first person, by a horse). But that changed with the involved of the South African Handspring Puppet Company, who brought Joey and the other animals in the story to life. Speaking at the launch, Michael described the moment he was shown a video of a Handspring giraffe puppet, which not only brought tears to his eyes (“I thought, you’re crying at a giraffe, what on earth is wrong with you!”) but convinced him to “put yourself in the hands of National Theatre”, and let the adaptation of War Horse go ahead.
Although they’re not conventionally life-like, the puppets are amazingly effective. Even close-up and out of the immersive context of a performance, what’s striking is how quickly you forget the three operators, and simply accept the puppet as an animal. It’s a feeling that’s shared by the cast. James Backway says: “Even in the very early stages of rehearsal, you just feel ‘Woah, that’s a horse’. I did one exercise where I had to calm Joey down when he was angry, and everybody said, ‘that was great, how you reacted to him’, but that’s partly because a bit of me was genuinely scared I was going to get charged by this horse!”
Although the fact that we quickly forget about them is symbolic of their success, it would be wrong not to talk about the remarkable people who operate the puppets. Each horse requires three people to operate – separated into ‘roles’ of the head, the heart and the hind of the horse. The actions performed by the puppeteers are split into physical and emotional tasks. For example, the ‘hind’ puppeteer will operate the horse’s back legs (the physical task) and his tail (an emotional indicator). It takes around two months of training before they’re ready to perform, and these are physically demanding roles. When Joey’s hooves hit the ground they sound like they have the full weight of a horse behind them, but in reality all of the puppet’s weight is supported by its operators.
Michael Morpurgo says of them: “They work so, so hard. You should hug them, there is nothing there to hug except muscle and bone!” It’s a tempting idea Michael, but that kind of thing can get a girl into trouble…
That was my initial introduction to the world of War Horse. Later the same day I watched a performance for the first time – and finally understood exactly why this has been such a phenomenally successful production. I’m not going to write about it in detail, because so much has been said about it already. I will admit to crying, though. I’m looking forward to seeing it again when it arrives in Canterbury – especially as the company will be rehearsing with us for two weeks before their run. So I should get the chance to know Joey a little better. I can’t wait!
War Horse is touring to Canterbury, Bristol, Liverpool, Oxford, Brighton, Bradford, and Nottingham from September 2017.
For more details see here: