The Oscar-winning 1917, recent centenary commemorations, and Peter Jackson’s hi-tech film restoration project They Shall Not Grow Old have made the First World War vivid for a new generation in ways we haven’t experienced before, says Charlie Kenber, resident director of the National Theatre of Great Britain’s international hit War Horse.
“That’s something that has completely changed in the years War Horse has been playing,” he says. “From my own experience, I know that in England until quite recently, when you talked about ‘the war’, it was always World War II that came to mind. “But with those films, suddenly WWI is much more on people’s minds than it used to be.”
Yet as immersive and eye-opening as 1917 and They Shall Not Grow Old respectively are, Kenber says, War Horse continues to exert a uniquely powerful grip on audiences wherever it plays. Theatre, he believes, takes you to places film cannot.
“In some ways it’s like watching a film because we have this letterbox shape to the proscenium, lots of projections and a sense of landscape and wide-open spaces. But in the end, the magic comes from making the audience believe in something made out of wood and fabric and bicycle brakes.”
Though it’s a large and complex operation, War Horse is “poor theatre on a grand scale,” Kenber says.
“We don’t use more than is useful in the storytelling. We could have put one hundred horses on stage and it would look amazing. But you wouldn’t be able to do anything with them. It would just be spectacle. For us, the most effective way of creating overwhelming images is to engage the imagination of the audience.”
Since its world premiere in London in 2007, Nick Stafford’s adaptation of English author Michael Morpurgo’s book War Horse has played on stages in the United States, Europe, China and most recently in New Zealand/Aotearoa. It was first seen in Australia in 2013.
“Because the show’s been going for a few years now, it’s easy to forget what a ludicrous idea it must have seemed back then because the book is really all about horses,” says Kenber, who has steered this iteration of War Horse through its current tour.
“That’s what Michael was attracted to. He wanted to write a story about that war through their eyes. The horses didn’t sign up. They didn’t volunteer. They just went to war and almost none of them came home. They died in droves. Of the 140,000 that were shipped from Australia, for example, I think only one ever came back.”
Those numbers pale beside the human cost, perhaps, but the theatricalised images of animal suffering presented in War Horse cut through in ways that images of human suffering – even when presented in the most realistic detail possible on screen – often do not, Kenber says.
“There is something about the perceived innocence of animals that makes us feel their pain. And horses are such emotional animals. The bond they form with humans is incredible.”
The work of the show’s puppeteers is key to establishing a similar bond with an audience, night after night.
“There are three puppeteers to each horse,” Kenber explains. “We call them the head, the heart and the hind, and they’re each responsible for a particular emotional indicator – ears and tail and eye lines – as well as more general movement. The puppeteers rotate during the season, so depending on who is operating what, the horse takes on a slightly different personality.”
Designed by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, the full-scale puppets shudder with life. They breathe.
“The heart puppeteer’s role is to operate the horse’s ribcage and give us the impression of its shifting weight and moods,” Kenber explains. “If the breath is sharp and short, that shows us the agitation of the animal. If it’s deep and slow, it’s in a more relaxed state.”
The three puppeteers in each horse develop an uncanny unity, Kenber adds. “They’ve done studies with choirs and found that the singers’ heartbeats sync up and I think it’s exactly the same for our puppeteers. They breathe in time, and they’re always connecting.
“For example, they do what we call ‘passing the ball’. One of the puppeteers might have an idea and then others follow it. Then another puppeteer might make a different offer and they all go with that. There’s no leader. They’re always open to ideas and playing truthfully.”
Everyone involved with the horse puppets in War Horse spends time with real horses prior to the commencement of rehearsals, Kenber adds.
“Usually it’s with the Household Cavalry in London. We meet military horses and talk to the soldiers about how they handle their horses and their relationships with them. We also always go to stables and meet regular horses – draft horses or riding horses – and learn how they interact with animals. It’s amazing to watch, actually, just the amount of tactile and verbal conversation there is between a horse and its handler.”
Sometimes, says Kenber, the bond between soldier and horse is quite profound. “We’ve heard stories of soldiers who spoke to their horses about the horrors they saw, things they would never tell anyone else. They were able to speak more freely to a horse than to any other human. They really felt the horse could understand what they were feeling.”
This production differs from the 2013 production in that it features a largely British ensemble of actors and puppeteers.
The show is always evolving, says Kenber. “There are always tweaks to what we do and the casting is quite different in certain roles and each actor brings something fresh to the roles they play. But the spirit of the piece doesn’t change.”
War Horse plays the Lyric Theatre, Pyrmont, until March 15