The secret behind the realism of ’War Horse’

There’s nothing whimsical or cute about the star
An articulate horse who doesn’t talk
Simon Annand; Janette Pellegrini/Getty Images

“We thought it was an experimental show. We had no idea it would turn into a commercial show,” Tom Morris says of War Horse. When Morris, co-director Marianne Elliott and writer Nick Stafford adapted Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel, it hadn’t been done on stage or screen. That’s because although there are human characters, the real star is a horse who gets sold to the army during the First World War, giving the show what Morris calls “a central character who doesn’t speak.” The stage version, first presented at Britain’s National Theatre in 2007, has turned that horse’s fortunes around: the show is running on Broadway, and will have its Canadian premiere at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre in February 2012. The production even inspired Steven Spielberg to make a film of the same book, to be released at the end of this year. And how did War Horse create a spectacle that could compete with big, realistic-looking movies? With one of the oldest, most artificial theatrical techniques in the world: puppeteering.

Handspring, the company that created the puppets for War Horse, uses what Morris calls “a complex system of pulleys and things like that,” requiring “extraordinary strength” from the three people required to manipulate one horse. It sometimes requires different abilities than the average puppet show. “Very few of them tend to be trained puppeteers,” Morris says. “Some of them, but it’s not the main skill base that we tend to work from.” And because the titular horse, Joey, is the focus of the evening, much of the emotional energy comes from the puppeteers, who simulate the different ways his tail can move or his reactions to being caught in the middle of the war: he doesn’t talk, but Elliott says he’s “incredibly articulate physically.”

The use of puppets on stage is nothing new, but puppets are associated with fantasy and whimsy. Avenue Q uses Sesame Street-style puppets, and Julie Taymor’s productions, like The Lion King and the first version of Spider-Man, use puppets to simulate things that can be done in comic books and animation. But War Horse’s puppets are not supposed to be cartoonish: Elliott says that they were determined not to “anthropomorphize the horses. They do only what a horse would do.” Few major productions since the 1965 Sherlock Holmes musical Baker Street— which had marionettes simulating a parade in Victorian London—have used puppets so straightforwardly; Morris says Handspring’s challenge was to deliver “a deadpan puppet.”

And yet, though the War Horse puppets act like horses, they’re not supposed to look like real horses. The puppeteers are in view; Elliott notes that they didn’t try to disguise them: “They’re in highly visible costumes. Even the head puppeteer has a hat on.” Far from the stereotype of modern audiences as realism-obsessed, the viewers of War Horse have been willing to go along with this. Morris even thinks that the artifice might be getting the audience more interested in the performance than they might otherwise be. Because we “are given an obstacle to overcome, the presence of the puppeteers,” we’re more “authorially engaged” in making it seem convincing. “You see how the illusion is created, but you still invest,” Elliott explains. That may be why even critics like the New York Times’s Ben Brantley, who thought the story was too sentimental, made an exception for the “theatrical magic” of Joey.

That element of what Elliott calls “the world of make-believe” may help distinguish the stage version from the upcoming movie. Though Morris says the film “is partly based on the stage production, and Spielberg has been characteristically generous” about admitting it, his version of the book will use actual horses in these situations. Instead of trying to compete with that, War Horse is succeeding by combining realistic behaviour with what Elliott calls “this compact of the imagination, where theatre doesn’t try to fill in every detail.” But don’t expect this combination of realism and fantasy to work with every kind of puppet. “It would be quite interesting to use Kermit the Frog to act like a real frog,” Elliott says. “But it wouldn’t produce captivating theatre.”