The men inside the horse

The puppetry behind a moving theatrical spectacle
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Horses rank high in the contenders for the job of man’s best friend. From ploughing fields and pulling carriages to carrying us into battle, the horse has been man’s companion in times of peace and war. And nothing comes across more clearly than this special relationship in War Horse, the play based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, which started life at the National Theatre in 2007 and trotted off to the West End this March.

The star of the show is Joey, a red-brown stallion, who is reared and loved by young Albert, until Joey is commandeered and taken to France at the beginning of WW1. Albert is so heartbroken, that he enlists to find Joey and to bring him home. There are five horse puppets hanging up above the stage wings, so they can be pulled down quickly for each scene change.

Created by the Handspring Puppet Company, from South African, Joey and the other adult horse Topthorn are light contraptions made of aluminium spines, curving cane bodies and leather manes. Each horse requires two actors to strap themselves in: one is the hind, the part that gives the puppet the illusion of weight; one is the middle, the heart and emotional lead of the horse. They move the horse’s legs by operating levers, which are attached to its hooves. The third actor, dressed inconspicuously in colours to match the horse’s hide, guides its head.

So how do the actors manage to coordinate their movements and sounds to bring these puppets to glorious, snorting, hoof-beating, mane-shaking life?

"We spent a good month before we started rehearsing researching horses and acting in our horse teams to make sure we’re working in synch so that the audience get an image of one animal and not three different characters," explains actor and puppeteer Robin Guiver, 26, who plays the hind part of Joey. The actors spent time watching horses, met a horse whisperer who helped them with body language, and even spent a day mucking out horses and watching them pulling guns at the barracks of the King’s Troop.

"We asked in the beginning to get the beefiest people to work the horses, but the people I chose in the end were not them, I chose good puppeteers, they were the only ones who could make the horsea speak," says Adrian Kohler, the puppet designer from Handsping. "It’s not just about brute strength, it’s about balance and sensitivity to the notion of how a puppet animal should move."

Guiver agrees: "The way the horses are built allows us to express strong emotions through puppeteering. We can show if the horse is happy or sad through the way it twitches its ears or swishes its tail. Bringing it to life is very satisfying."

The puppets really come alive when they stamp their hooves, neigh and whicker. The horses often shudder and vibrate, movements created by the actors on the inside. Luckily, they wear microphones, but Guiver says elongating the sound is a challenge. "The head will give us the lead. The person in the middle will take on the emotional responses of the horse and will begin a sound and I finish it off.” The actors cannot see each other, but have found a real rhythm between themselves, which has given them a unique experience as performers.

When the adult Joey careens onto the stage for the first time, an enormous wooden horse, the mind reels at the possibility that this is a real animal. It takes only a moment for the brain to shift from the reality of looking at a puppet to believing that what you’re seeing is, in fact, a rather real horse.

"There’s a weird thing which happens between our left brain and our right brain," explains Robin Guiver, "that when we look at the puppet, our right brain goes ‘ah, it’s a horse’ and our left brain goes ‘oh no, it’s a puppet’ and at some point you let your brain decide what you want to see. But there’s a fractionally minute gap between those two realisations where the magic of the puppets happens."

War Horse’s world is so engulfing that when towards the end of the play, as the war is winding down, some exhausted, skeletal horses drag themselves onto the stage, you can’t help but gasp in horror. The play is based on a children’s book and often the audience is made up of youngsters. "Children react to the horses brilliantly and much more volubly. They suspend their disbelief in such a wonderful way," says Guiver.

Around sixteen million people died during the First World War, with eight million horses perishing alongside them in the mud and the barbed wire. As the war fades from living memory, it’s vital to keep it alive in our imaginations and puppetry is a "fantastic way to do it," says Guiver. "We can’t help but suspend our disbelief, that’s what’s so beautiful about puppetry."

War Horse, Booking until 26 September 2009, New London Theatre, , Telephone 0844 412 4654?, Group Bookings 0844 412 4650