Joey Goes to War
Joey, a few bits of plywood, cane, strips of material and twine topped off with a coat of paint, is one of the great theatrical stars of the past decade.
He’s the horsey puppet lead in the National Theatre of Great Britain’s stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel, War Horse, which had its stage debut at London’s Olivier Theatre on October 17, 2007.
The original London production won two Olivier Awards before heading to New York for 718 performances in 2011 and taking out five Tony Awards.
The London production opened in Melbourne on New Year’s Eve 2012, played Sydney earlier in the year, and is now set to open at Queensland Performance Arts Centre’s Lyric Theatre for a strictly limited three week season.
The production, which features several giant horse puppets , including Joey the star, has been hailed internationally for Handspring Productions magnificent life-like puppet horses and even sections of horses in the background.
The battle scenes are truly effective and chilling in their own theatrical way. This is theatre as style and it’s a new one.
Handspring, which has its roots in South Africa, is the brainchild of Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones who believe that the soul of the puppet lives in the palm of the human hand which guides it.
The duo have a definite philosophy when it comes to puppetry, which has won them international acclaim for creations which allow the audience to suspend their belief and see the animals as genuine characters with real personalities.
They do this without allowing the puppets to fall into the common trap of becoming simply a four legged representation of humankind as Kohler explained in a recent interview.
“I suppose the thing about Aesop’s Fables or Mickey Mouse, is that they’re really people,” explained Kohler.
“They’re not really animals; they simply use the shape of the animal to add some kind of texture to what is basically a human argument. Whereas working with horses in War Horse has meant that we’ve got to learn how horses think, how horses are different from humans.”
The giant stand-alone horses feature two puppeteers inside the structure and another outside, controlling the head, and even author Morpurgo thought the idea, ‘quite mad,’ and impossible to bring to the stage when it was first floated.
In reality – and OCS caught up with the show at New York’s Lincoln Center a couple of years ago – the puppeteers seem to quickly fade away and become invisible as the horses take on their starring roles capturing total audience attention.
Kohler and Jones say the puppeteers do this by making the ‘puppet look natural, while having to be unnatural themselves’, learning a new language of intense communication and becoming a slave to their object wards.
The War Horse story is a classic one of the relationship between a boy, Albert, and his horse, Joey, who develop a bond in their native Devon in the UK and then have to confront the horrors of war and separation during World War One.
Joey is one of the 500,000 horses who are recruited to go to France but, unlike so many, Albert, determined that his loved ‘friend’ won’t be a casualty of war but rather returned to the fold.
The play with music , the composer is Adrian Sutton and the lyricist John Tams, is a bitter sweet story of a profound relationship set against the horrors of war, but there’s no doubt who are the stars.
War House has been hailed as groundbreaking in the use of puppetry in serious theatre and praised by audiences and critics alike as a show not to be missed.