Saturday, October 9, 2010


How would you stage a play that is principally about horses, and features one in a starring role? Moreover, the horses not only run about but also are ridden into battle in WWI, and pull cannon and ambulances and get maltreated and shot? With puppets of course. But don’t be misled by the word ‘puppets’ into thinking of marionettes on strings. These horses are life size, even super-life-sized, and can be actually ridden by the actors. And amazing at it may seem, within less than 30 seconds of meeting the first of them, you as the audience are prepared to completely believe in them as animals, simply overlooking for the next few hours the existence of the three puppet-masters handling them. At least, until after the performance when you sit around with your après-theatre drinks and begin to marvel at how what you have just seen was accomplished.

In addition, there is a clever story that would be sentimental if it wasn’t about war, the particularly horrific war in France in 1914-18; some impassioned and clever performances from a huge cast; and spectacular stage effects in a marvellous display of what makes live theatre so special. I’m told that Steven Spielberg has bought the rights to the story and intends to make a film. I don’t see how he – for all his genius – can come close to matching the experience of sitting through this piece of theatre. The layers that are interposed between me in the back row (still a great view –no bad seats in the New London Theatre) and the WWI horses include the space, the actors, the design, the projected visuals, the huge pieces of stage machinery (think army tank), and then the extraordinary puppets and their handlers. Which I still half-think were real horses. And I haven’t even mentioned the goose. I cried my eyes out and I wasn’t the only one – and it had an (unexpected) happy ending!

Have I interested you in ‘Warhorse’, which has been playing for over a year in London, staged by The National Theatre with Handspring Puppet Company? Check out the videos on their Facebook page for a tiny taste of the miracles they weave:
Nigel Betts
Kyle and friends were heading to the theatre for this amazing experience (Kyle’s second time) last night. The show is now at The New London Theatre in Drury Lane. After the show about ten people gathered in a bad Greek restaurant in Tavistock Street, including - *fan excitement!* - one of the cast members, Nigel Betts, who played two roles: a bluff but dysfunctional Devon farmer, and a bluff but soft-centred army sergeant. How exciting it was to talk to Nigel about what it is like to work in the production! We learnt that the puppeteers/actors that operate the horse puppets are said to be ‘in horse’ when they take their turn being, well, in-horse. Each horse is handled by a team of three, two in-horse and one handling the head of the horse. Each horse character has three rotating teams of three, and no-one does more than two shows in-horse per week (although there are eight performances a week).  Nigel also talked to us about the itinerant life of an actor (though his acting résumé is very impressive) and what it is like working in the big company that comprises the ‘Warhorse’ cast, and other interesting backstage titbits, so that we hardly noticed that the meal took so long to arrive. Thanks, Nigel!

Obviously I recommend seeing this production if you or it ever rove and find yourselves in the same place at the same time. It is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo (1982), adapted by Nick Stafford, and the directors are Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. The designers of scenery, graphic drawings, puppets, choreography, lighting, video, sound (there’s a singer and musicians)...all deserve recognition. Check the web site:
***** from me.

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