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The Secret Language of Puppets: 'War Horse' Comes to Lincoln Center

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The Handspring Puppet Company’s production of "War Horse" opened at Lincoln Center on Thursday night. The powerful adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel challenges notions of puppetry while teaching us about love and war.

"My Friend Flicka." "The Black Stallion." Alexander & Bucephalus. Picasso’s “Boy Leading a Horse.”  "Seabiscuit."  The image of boy and horse is deeply embedded in our culture, and stirs our imagination.

Now take that bond between two kinds of intuitive beings, two kinds of explosive energy, two kinds of infinite possibility, and place it in the roiling shadow of World War I, which killed nearly as many horses as English troops, and you have the central story in Michael Morpurgo’s "War Horse." And what began as a thoughtful children’s book became an international phenomenon when the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa translated Morpurgo’s text—and the provocative notion of a story told from the point of view of an animal—into a beautiful and cathartic theatrical experience. In their hands (literally, as each more than life-size puppet is made by hand) the story of Joey, a cross between a draft horse (heavier horses used to work farmland) and a Thoroughbred, born in Devon in 1912, and Albert, the farm boy who trains and loves him, takes on mythic proportions.

"War Horse" was first presented by Great Britain’s National Theatre in November of 2007, after months of workshopping, and its New York premiere has been eagerly anticipated.  (The play is still running in the West End and a Canadian production is in the works.) 

The story has lost none of its simplicity in its translation to the stage:  Albert lives on a small, heavily mortgaged farm. One day his shiftless father buys Joey for more money than he can afford in a fit of drunken bravado, and the horse becomes the emotional center of his young son’s life.  Two years later, Albert is devastated when his father sells Joey to the Army as an officer’s mount: England has just declared war against the Kaiser, and, although no one knows it yet, a whole generation, man and beast, is about to be sacrificed. 

Joey is shipped off to France, and Albert, still under age, runs away from home to bring him back.

The play’s devastating second act follows the parallel story of Albert, desperately seeking Joey through the ravaged French countryside, and Joey and his friend Topthorn, a proud Thoroughbred cavalry horse. Surviving several terrible battles—mounted troops pitted for the first time against the new weapons of industrial war: machine guns, tanks, and barbed wire—Joey and Topthorn are captured by the Germans and put to work pulling mounted cannons and hospital wagons carting the wounded off the blood-soaked fields. 

“I think the genius of this story,” says Adrian Kohler, who is one of the founders of Handspring and the designer of the puppets, “is that the horse enters a war completely neutral. It’s a living, breathing, warm-blooded loving animal that doesn’t take sides…it makes the war seem ludicrous.”  

Briefly protected by a sympathetic German officer, it seems only a matter of time before Joey and Topthorn join the ranks of the many horses that died of exhaustion. The prospects for Albert, in a conflict increasingly random and senseless, don’t seem much better.  In the end, Albert and Joey are miraculously united, but there is nothing cheap or pat about their reunion.

The challenge of the piece was emotional and mechanical: figuring out how to construct believable horses and how to animate them in a completely credible way. As the other creator of "War Horse" (and Handspring co-founder) Basil Jones puts it, “We’re kind of saying quite radically, ‘movement is thought’. We’re kind of saying, ‘thought exists in the body, in the way the body moves. Thought doesn’t just come out of the mind.’”

This concept directed both the design of the puppets and the show’s performance aesthetic. The horses are lightweight cane and gauze—“very much like a three-dimensional drawing made out of cane lines,” says Jones—so the two interior puppeteers can operate comfortably from inside the body.

The puppet teams train exhaustively for more than two months to learn how to not only move convincingly (the puppets uncannily capture a horse’s combination of heft and elevation; and its combination of pride and fearfulness) but to convey emotions with the twitch of a tail, the shift of an ear.  And there is an important element of spontaneity that keeps the action fresh for the human actors. 

Mervyn Millar has selected and trained all of the puppeteers for "War Horse": "There’s a grammar of horse behavior that we can teach people [but] one of the things that was most joyous about that first cast was that people would come and say ‘I think we can do a buck, can we try it?’…And that offer is still open to all new puppeteers who come.'”  

The play's two story lines also offer an opportunity to the audience, says Millar.  "You can follow a human story...of falling in love, of separation, of dedication and loyalty, and you can also follow the emotional story of the animal."  At a certain point in the training process, once the technical issues have been dealt with, what is being conveyed to the puppeteers is "we need you to think like a horse; we need you to have the response that a horse would have in this situation, so that, every night you can feel the right thing to do."

One of the new puppeteers in the New York cast is Tom Lee, who took me on a “tour” of Joey on stage at Lincoln Center.

The pre-show bustle ("War Horse" has been in previews for two weeks) takes place in an area off the main stage that is half-workshop, half-battle zone: the “Baby Joey” puppet (Joey as a foal) lies supine on a tabletop, and other partial puppets are carried in the arms of their human counterparts, as if wounded in the war.  On cue, one man calls out a warning before letting loose a round of machine gun fire (you’ll hear it in the audio stream below) and we have to halt the recording to let a tank roll by.

Even inert, and hanging from the ceiling, Joey is vivid and imposing, but what makes him come to life is the complex bond among the puppeteers.

“The three of us have to learn to live, breath, and gallop a horse together every night, and it’s a remarkable experience to perform it, to see it performed, and to see how people just emotionally connect with it," says Lee. "In our best performances, we are all feeling each other organically and you don’t know exactly who is in charge.”

Listen to Tom Lee and Joey here:

“There’s something transcendent about that that we didn’t expect to see,” says Jones. “When they are working with real restraint [less is more in puppetry] the transformation of this object into a real and living animal is so complete it has a mystical quality that takes me completely by surprise and still brings tears to my eyes.”

On his own, Lee demonstrates for me the harness that allows the puppeteers to manipulate the body of the horse from the inside, and the rod that a third operator uses to position the head. He lifts the complex string system that “floats” the legs (Kohler says he began the design of the puppet by making detailed studies of the equine skeletal system) and gallops in place, finishing off with a flourish of the papery mane and a joyous nicker.

But mechanics are only part of the performance. The puppeteers visited horse farms, watched Monty Roberts videos, and had to submit reports about things they had learned about horse psychology (such as that horses are threatened by direct stares, and show fear by sinking down on their haunches.) They’ve started their own blog, where they post interesting YouTube videos and pass on other tips and findings about all things horse.  And when it all comes together, says Millar, "You can see the moment when every audience member is focused on an ear turning, or a breath being taken.  That beautiful moment of stillness when a puppet is about to make a decision."

Listen to more from Mervyn Millar here:

Watching Lee—and later, during the full performance of the play—it becomes absolutely clear why the bond between Joey and Albert is so real:  the play creates a language that lies in a realm between the two worlds: if only the battling humans could do the same.

"War Horse" is a culmination of Handspring’s 25-year exploration of puppetry as a metaphysical, theatrical, and political form of engagement. And it couldn’t be more timely: the 100th anniversary of World War I is only a few years away, and in September many communities in this country are marking the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks—both extreme examples of what happens when the human animal fails to listen, to think with its body and its mind, and to try to imagine the world through others' eyes.

To hear the complete interview with Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, click on the audio link above.