shows: Warhorse stamps its hooves in Australia ....................
LIKE all horses, their ears twitch inquisitively. A shake of the mane is followed by a swish of the tail, a familiar clip-clop sound, a high-pitched neigh, even the occasional rear on to hind legs.
Squint your eyes and these towering creations look and behave exactly like horses. Move closer though and their sleek bodies are made from cane and gauze, steel and leather, their movements controlled by people operating underneath.
This is the theatrical world of War Horse, where life-sized puppets are the imposing stars of the stage. With a series of Laurence Olivier and Tony Awards under the saddle, the acclaimed National Theatre production is arriving for seasons in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
Inspired by the best-selling 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse is the story of a young horse owner, Albert, who has to sell his horse, Joey, to the British army to be used on the battlefields during World War I.
According to War Horse’s theatrical director Drew Barr, the story’s resonance rests on having one foot in reality.
‘‘When you’re asking the audience to invest emotionally in the story of a horse it has to be as lifelike as possible,’’ says Barr.
‘‘We’ve taken a horse as the central character with the goal of him behaving like the real thing. Everybody in the cast lives with Joey like he’s a living and breathing animal.’’
The all-Australian cast of War Horse has been rehearsing for eight weeks, the most gruelling regimes forced upon the three-man teams who control the horses. Split between the head, heart and behind, the teams rely on synchronised breathing to get the movements right. They have to trot, fight and, like any horse, carry a human.
A mixture of actors and puppeteers, their success ‘in the cage’ relies on instinct and practice. They spend hours observing the behaviour of horses and emulate their natural characteristics.
‘‘I spend every morning in the shower making horse noises,’’ laughs John Shearman, the ‘head’ of Joey.
His team initially struggled to walk but are now making strides towards becoming a fully functioning horse in time for the show premiere in Melbourne on December 31.
War Horse plays the Lyric Theatre, at QPAC, in Brisbane, from July 11 to August 4.
‘‘Joey’’ with Finn Caldwell director of puppetry for War Horse.