The astonishing War Horse is set to canter onto Australian shores again in 2020 on a three month tour that will cover Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. Presented by the National Theatre of Great Britain, War Horse is a Olivier and Tony Award winning theatrical event that has swept the globe since 2007 when it made its premiere at the Royal National Theatre in London. Based on Michael

Morpurgo’s best-selling 1982 novel, and set at the outbreak of WWI, War Horse tells the stirring tale of a boy and his horse through the horror that was the first world war. Albert and Joey set upon their separate journeys filled with danger, joy and sorrow – for Albert, a quest to be reunited with his beloved horse; for Joey a mission through the frontlines beginning in France.

An incredibly moving story of hope, optimism and friendship set against a backdrop of bleakness, hardship and war, War Horse is brought to magical life by the phenomenal ground-breaking puppetry work of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. Awe- inspiring theatrical magic as horses take form and live under the skill and guidance of puppeteers whose technical mastery quickly transforms the inanimate to the animate.

Resident Puppetry Director, Gareth Aled credits Adrian Kohler & Basil Jones, of the Handspring puppet company, as responsible for these incredible puppets. The company name comes from their belief that the life of the puppet springs directly from the hand of the puppeteer.

“Our puppeteers are in close and direct contact with the puppet and using principals and techniques they bring the puppet to life, Aled explains. “The first principal being focus. Humans and animals are so observant to eye-line, if our puppeteers focus on the puppet directly you the audience are encouraged to look at the puppet. Simple and yet incredibly powerful. The second principal is Breath. All our puppets breathe. If something is breathing it conveys life and the rhythm of that breath will suggest thought and emotion. A third principal is muscularity and weight. Joey is made out of cane, mesh, leather, aluminium, steel all of which have a very different relationship to gravity compared to the weight of a real “half thoroughbred, half draft” adult horse. Convincing you the audience of muscle, weight and power is a constant challenge.”

Both intricate and intimate, it takes three puppeteers to operate Joey: a Head, Heart and Hind. They each have a technical task and an emotional indicator.

Technically the Head puppeteer maintains the head height and eye-line of the horse, emotionally they operate the ears via bicycle break leavers. If the ears both pin back it suggests fear, discomfort, agitation. If they soften forward and the head lowers it could convey curiosity, passiveness or relaxation.

Each time the Heart puppeteer moves they have the technical responsibility of engaging a trigger which articulates the knee joint and curls the hoof. Emotionally when the puppeteer bends his/her knees the horse breathes – our most important emotional indicator.

Finally, the hind puppeteer, technically they maintain the gait of the horse. Our horses participate in cavalry charges and therefore are required to walk, trot and gallop. All three of which have a specific rhythmic pattern. Emotionally they use by bicycle break leavers to operate the tail.

“These three puppeteers coordinate and communicate through a shared breath. An incredible act of trust and teamwork,” says Aled.

Aled began his journey with War Horse as an actor/puppeteer in 2013 after auditioning in November 2012 whilst the play was at the New London Theatre, London. He was cast as a head puppeteer alternating between both Joey & Topthorn. Aled then went on to perform the play for the next two and a half years before joining the creative team as Resident Puppetry Director in 2018.

“As a new company member in 2012, what struck me was how the National Theatre strongly encouraged a level of care, creativity, openness and ownership to the work,” he says of the company whose mission it is to  make world class theatre that’s entertaining, challenging and inspiring for everyone. “This is still true today. Theatre is a live event, it requires this level of dedication and curiosity. It is our job to continue to develop the work, question it, whilst at the same time staying true and connected to the original production and heritage that we’ve excitingly inherited.”

What Aled loves most about theatre is the sheer endeavour of it and the potential for connection. “The whole event is so inherently optimistic & this play requires a large company of people across all departments to work extremely hard to tell this story successfully,” he says. “At the centre of this event is a puppet horse that is living, breathing, thinking and feeling – we convince you strongly of that, live. You forget that the puppeteers exist and end up believing in the individual character.

I am one of 60 people that are currently touring this play across the world, I witness the impact this play has on audiences and share in their reactions. An incredible thing to be part of really.”

Trained as an actor and director, Aled graduated from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama As he started to pursue acting he fell in love with physical, ensemble storytelling – something that War Horse epitomizes!

Growing up in the countryside I was always climbing trees, riding bikes, jumping streams, falling in streams, running, cycling – hobbies and passions that developed strong physicality,” he says.

So what does he love about the physicality and, to some degree, anonymity of puppeteering?

“When an actor walks on stage the audience don’t doubt that they’re living, investing in their character & story can begin immediately. When a puppet enters a space, before any story is told, the audience have to be convinced that it’s living. This endeavour & task often requires the puppeteer to work really hard technically & physically. If they do their job correctly an audience will forget that they exist. A large amount of generosity and a distinct lack of ego is required.

Puppeteering, acting and directing are different disciplines however ultimately these endeavours are acts of storytelling so for me personally I tend not to put them in separate boxes. I don’t worry about that too much. I am always inspired by the stories waiting to be told, the people I collaborate with and the audiences that will experience the work.”

Aled explains that each puppet is and feels different, it requires different technical tasks and challenges to convey life. The strongest distinction for Aled, however, are the characters and their emotional journey. “Joey’s journey through the play is very different to that of Topthorn’s. Looking back on my time performing this play I didn’t have a favourite, however day to day when puppeteering I would sometimes lean towards one or the other – like any actor that plays multiple parts. I guess it depended on the day and how I was feeling,” he says.

As the Resident Puppetry Director, Aled works closely with the company as they navigate their way through the audition process, rehearsals, technical rehearsals, and the performances themselves. He has the joy of travelling full time and facilitating the work the incredible puppeteers do. He is constantly striving to  develop the Puppetry whilst at the same time maintaining the vision and ethos of the creative team. He will also facilitate educational work and meet with young people to give them an insight into making theatre and processes involved. “This is so important and it’s part of my job which I find really rewarding,” he says.

War Horse has now been seen by over eight million people worldwide and travelled to 97 cities in 11 countries – a phenomenal record as War Horse continues to resonate and connect and move its global audience in an almost unprecedented fashion.

Aled believes that the  universality of suffering and the futility of war and themes of community, love, loss and loyalty are what make War Horse a special story – one that transcends time and cultures – one that unifies.

“An animal that doesn’t engage with politics nor does it understand human language (English, French, German), it responds to tone, inter-nation, kindness and vulnerability,” he says. “These ideas translate to all people, all over the world. I think this is partly why the play is so impactful. Each component of our production is extraordinary but collectively War Horse is an evening at the theatre which resonates on a level greater than the sum of its parts. The rewards that come with it are extraordinary. This play never ceases to move, surprise and inspire me.”

A truly remarkable quintessential theatrical event, War Horse must be experienced by young and old alike. Says Aled, ” Theatre can only be experienced live. The true magic of this production cannot be fully expressed in an interview or via still paragraphs and video, it can only serve to encourage you to sit down in an auditorium and watch the story unfold. Ours begins with a foal puppet horse coming to life and taking its first few vulnerable steps…..”

War Horse Touring dates:

Regent Theatre, Melbourne from 10 January 2020

Lyric Theatre, Sydney from 15 February 2020

Crown Theatre, Perth from 24 March 2020

Images: Brinkhoff Mögenburg