War Horse in London: An Experience With Puppetry

Posted on January 21st, 2010 by

On January 14, 2010 we visited the New London Theatre for a matinee showing of the play War Horse. This theatre, which opened in 1973, was massive in size and was packed with people, most of whom were either visiting with a school group or in their 70s. This play was based off of a novel by Michael Morpurgo. It was a winner of the Olivier, Evening Standard, and Critics’ Circle Awards. In this story we are taken through the journey of a young boy, Albert, and the life of his horse Joey as they are swept up into the First World War. Even though some of the acting during the play was not nearly as phenomenal as other shows we had seen, the play was full of many beautiful elements.
We found ourselves sitting in the far right of the theatre near a wall, which caused us to lean forward so we would be able to see the right side of the stage. But, it was not just the view that had me on the edge of my seat. I was fully enveloped in the beautiful music played during transitions between scenes, which usually consisted of a young man singing a piece of the story while playing the accordion. The beautiful music added to the dramatic scenes happening before us.
This play had us on an emotional roller coaster. We witnessed death scenes, scenes of war, and scenes that were so happy they caused some of us to cry. Watching the audience around me I could see how during several parts of the play most of the audience was reaching for a tissue or wiping away tears from their faces. What I found interesting was how these emotions were brought out by the actor’s interactions with puppets.
A sizable chunk of the cast were puppets. There was a great range of puppets including battle ships, crows, birds that soared above and through the audience, horses, and a goose who provided the comic relief in the show. These puppets were handled by puppeteers in different ways depending on the puppet. Some were raised with poles while others were strapped to the backs of the puppeteers. The puppeteers would create the movement of the puppet and make the noises of the animal as well. Most of the puppets’ bodies were constructed with metal riveted together to allow movement. The National Theatre worked with the Handspring Puppet Company to make this show come alive with life-sized puppetry. Some of these puppets only needed a single person to run, such as the birds, but others proved to be so complicated and intricate that they required three or more people to run them.
The puppets that needed the most puppeteers were the horses. These horses, that ended up being ridden into battle, could run across the stage, gallop, jump, and they could even be ridden by the actors. After a few scenes of getting used to one of the main characters being a puppet, I found myself fully believing the actors on stage really had relationships with the horses. It would break my heart to see one of the horses fall dead on the stage. Even though I knew they were a piece of machinery where you could see the puppeteers working the body parts and making the noises, I still felt emotionally connected to these puppets.
This is what I found to be most unique about this play, and I am sure this is why War Horse received so many awards and rave reviews. Nothing extravagant was needed as far as scenic design on the stage. Through most scenes all that was present on stage was a screen used to show projected drawings, a few props used to make fences, or a door. During certain parts of the play the turntable in the middle of the stage rotated, but instead of adding it merely detracted from the scene where deep emotional bonds and intricate work was being done. All this made me appreciate War Horse and all the work put into it. The way this performance effected people was touching. We were both observing and being engaged emotionally throughout the performance. I learned more about the relationship between audience and art. It was a different way of observing the power an audience can feel from a performance. It was an experience I will remember.


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