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Handspring Puppet Co.: The Genius Puppetry Behind War Horse

The production features designs by Rae Smith and original puppet design and construction by Adrian Kohler, lighting by Paule Constable, and movement and horse choreography by Toby Sedgwick. The puppetry directors are Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler; video designers are Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer; and songs are by John Tams.

Handspring Puppet Co.: The genius puppetry behind War Horse

They are there to share an epic theatrical experience. War Horse is, it seems, unique. Unique in that it draws on the collaborative genius of puppeteer, scenic artist, actor, musician and choreographer to conjure living, breathing mountains of horseflesh out of carved wood and gauze and leather. There is nothing animatronic about these creatures. We are left in no doubt that they are structures, industrial skeletons part-machine part-sculpture, activated by the balletic precision of several trios of physical performers. Structures they may be, but from the first moment of watching the fearful panting of a young foal to the wide-nostrilled horror of a charging battle-horse leaping over the barbed wire of the Flanders killing fields, these life-sized equestrian symbols become as real as the skilful athletes who manipulate them.

Nothing can prepare one for the extremes of emotion that such awe-inspiring puppetry on such a huge scale can produce. As horses lie slain in battle, or haul military hardware through muddied fields, our responses are as visceral as their suffering seems tangible. On every level War Horse plays on the emotional heartstrings, combining our nations love of the horse with our collective awareness of the futility of the First World War when the islands youth sacrificed their lives and futures for the sake of European power-politics. War Horse recreates this horrific world, adding just enough sentimental hope to relieve the overwhelming despair of the wartime moment.

The success of the production primarily lies with the amazing animals and birds that appear onstage or flying through the air. The movement of these creatures is stunningly recreated. Toby Sedgwicks simple title as director of horse choreography belies the astonishing artistic achievement of this movement. Sedgwick has fashioned a masterpiece of equine movement which complements the wizardry of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohlers direction of puppetry. Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, the overall directors of the production, could not have been better served. Likewise, Adrian Suttons haunting music, assisted by the inimitable folk-charm of John Tams as songmaker, adds a new dimension to a narrative already thick with imagery and theatrical magic.

The New London Theatre is the perfect venue for this National Theatre transfer, not least in that the stage mirrors the Olivier in expanse and structure. The vast sweep of the stage allows full rein to the galloping-horse puppetry. The images torn from a sketch book, which form the ever-changing backdrop to the play, evoke an expansive world of sometimes idyllic, sometimes horrific reality. As a theatrical event, War Horse is unsurpassable. As a subtle statement about the horrors of war, War Horse is unmistakable. As a production which delightfully animates an assorted medley of inanimate objects, War Horse is unmissable.

The design for the horse grew out of a previous design: that of the hyena used in Faustus of Africa, but imagined on a much grander scale. Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, two of the founders of handspring, gave a TED talk on the growth of the puppet from hyena to horse:

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