When director Marianne Elliott was pitched the idea of creating a theater piece based on a children’s book about cavalry horses in World War I, she responded, “It sounds like absolute madness. Yes, I’d love to do it.” Along with co-director Tom Morris and the artists of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, Elliott guided War Horse to a widely hailed London debut, and the creators are now hard at work bringing the show’s lead character, a beloved horse named Joey, to life for the American premiere of War Horse at Lincoln Center Theater beginning March 15.
At a February 24 press preview, held in a rehearsal room beneath the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Handspring co-founder Basil Jones, a native of South Africa, quipped, “A puppet is an engineer of the emotions, using up-to-the-minute 17th-century technology.” But don’t be fooled: These horses are amazingly lifelike despite being crafted of lightweight cane, aluminum, leather and mesh. A team of three puppeteers—described as the horse’s head, heart and hind—control Joey’s intricate movements and provide his "voice" in scenes choreographed by Toby Sedgwick.
“Movement is thought,” Jones explains of the horse puppet, emphasizing the importance of the appearance of breathing. (The middle puppeteer controls this with a slight bend of his or her knees.) An aluminum spine provides enough support to carry a rider, as one member of the press demonstrated by climbing on and trotting around the room. Joey's leather ears perked up when another journalist offered an imaginary carrot, the horse's neck leaning down for a very real-looking nuzzle.
Judging from a previewed scene involving a fence and a tangle of barbed wire, audiences are in for an emotional experience at War Horse. And the creators say they’re in awe of the 35-member American company. “They have an extraordinary work ethic and a 100% commitment to the physicality of the show,” says Jones. Echoes co-director Morris, "This ensemble of American actors has been a revelation. It's quite absurd what we ask them to do!"