S.African puppet horses gallop to Tony Award

The bits of moulded cane and metal on the Cape Town factory floor are destined to be stars: majestic horses that flick their tails, rear up and gallop with astonishing life-like ease.

The parts - hollow legs, heads and chesty frames - are future giant puppets created for the hit British play "War Horse", which has taken both the West End and Broadway by storm.

The World War I drama scooped up six Tony awards in New York on Sunday, including best play and a special Tony for its South African creators.

"We used to cry pretty well every performance," said Basil Jones, co-founder of Cape Town's Handspring Puppet Company, whose horses measure more than two metres (seven feet).

"It's astonishing. It's amazing to see how at interval the entire house feels like it's weeping."

The story tells of a boy's horse shipped to France in World War I and his owner's search for him.

The main characters, Joey and Topthorn - each fluidly operated by a trio of puppeteers with two inside their giant frames and one at the head - have spellbound and stirred audiences since opening in London in 2007.

"I think we wouldn't be in this business if we didn't believe that puppets had the power to do that. But War Horse has been the show that's proved it strongest," said Jones's partner Adrian Kohler.

After turning to adult puppetry in 1985, Handspring is no stranger to global acclaim, and has joined forces with South African artist William Kentridge in productions like "Woyzeck on the Highveld" and "Faustus in Africa".

But with the success of War Horse, activities in their workshop are overwhelmingly equine: a hovering Topthorn unfinished skeleton, fiddly wire work on massive heads, and giant resin eyeballs under brushstrokes.

"It was a really, really good feeling to see them in action. I was very proud," said head puppet engineer Jessica Mias-Jones, who saw the show in London.

"You can't really imagine it until you see it. It's quite something. Seeing it standing around in the factory is nothing, but seeing it onstage is really incredible because it really is alive."

The company was approached after their play "Tall Horse" starred a giant giraffe operated by traditional Malian puppeteers on stilts.

But the horses not only had to mirror their real-life counterparts with heaving flanks and ear-wiggling abilities, they also had to support human riders - a first-time challenge for the 30-year-old company.

"From our point of view, the movement of the puppet is absolutely the most important part. The look of the figure comes almost secondary," said Kohler.

"It's good if the look is sculptural, but primarily it's got to move and the actors inside of it have to have the space to move and the ability to see all around. So those were starting points and they determined quite early on the nature of the materials we used."

Soaked cane rods, resilient enough to bounce back from collisions, shape the horses with a series of hinges and metal including an aluminium bridge to support the rider.

"We were terrified because we just weren't sure at all that worked, and fortunately it did and it worked very well," said Kohler about the first carrying capacity test in front of 20 people in London.

"It was the workshop that convinced the theatre bosses that this was a project that they should greenlight because the horses were able to walk and trot and carry people."

The puppets in London have done more than 1,000 performances and travel with an extra head, four back-up legs and an instruction manual. Each set has a total of nine horses, six soldiers, two crows, two swallows and a goose.

Stringently trained and even sleeping in stables, the teams of puppeteers develop instinctive skills that transform the constructions into what reviewers have called "enchantment", "superlative puppetry" and "the stars of the show".

Hollywood director Steven Spielberg recently shot the film version.

"It's a really great honour for our company," said Jones about Sunday's special Tony.

The Tony Awards, which are given for best Broadway achievement, are considered the theater equivalent of the Oscars.

"Both the makers and the performers are part of what Handspring is and each has a totally different set of skills, but they are both of a very high order. So that's where the award goes really - to them."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions