Joey and Topthorn at Circa on Jellicoe

06 5 June Joey and Topthorn 2 .docxThis week’s pick has to be the exhibition at Circa: Joey and
Topthorn – 
featuring the 2 main puppets from War Horse along with other graphic works and sculptures by the Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of the Handspring Puppet Company.

In the staging of Morpurgo’s Warhorse, Topthorn meets Joey as a cavalry horse and Joey is the only horse who can keep up with him.  When the cavalry is captured by the Germans, Topthorn and Joey are put to work as cart-pulling horses.  Because he is unused to pulling carts, Topthorn needs Joey’s help to do his job.  One day, after a particularly gruelling hill, Topthorn just can’t manage any more. He silently asks Joey for help, but Joey cannot help and as Topthorn dies, Joey mourns and the audience weep.

South Africa has such talent and so many international successes and Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones are but 2 of these.  I felt so privileged to hear them speak in person about the puppets at Circa on Saturday. I had listened to/watched their amazing Ted talk (You can see it on ) and have seen
every one of Handspring productions, bar one, but to have been party to their real-life generosity, humour, passion, and extraordinary creativity as well as their obvious love for each other and their work, was truly special.  (I suggest that if you go to see the two puppets ‘in the flesh’ you watch the Ted Talk beforehand as it will explain the mechanics of the puppets).

And of course one can’t help but be deeply proud of our local talent: War Horse is the most successful play ever mounted by the Royal National Theatre of London and has been performed to over six million people worldwide. Apparently income from the play rendered the theatre relatively independent of National Arts Council funding, and allowed the building of the now famous Shed Theatre for experimental work.



Also Joey is famously beloved by Queen Elizabeth. Adrian had some wonderfully human and humorous stories to tell about the Queen’s response to Joey and War Horse – which she went to see. Joey was invited to Windsor Castle for the military tattoo and led the Royal Household Cavalry in royal salute. He also led the National Theatre’s tribute to the Queen during the Diamond Jubilee.

Adrian explained that it takes 28 people eight months to build a complete set of puppets for War Horse. They are made of cane, leather and tyvec, (for the manes and tails) a very strong material used in book-binding which is light but durable. Some of the challenges include making a horse puppet strong enough to carry a rider but light enough to be manipulated by the 2 body puppeteers (the hind and the heart puppeteer).  Puppeteers have Self & Joeyintensive training for 2 weeks (including observing the behaviour of live horses) and then many weeks of training in rehearsals. Their training also includes Handspring’s basic principles based on breath as well as communicating with each other as the only noises they are allowed to make are horse noises (of which there are about 8 – neighing, whinnying, snorting, blowing,nickering, sighing etc.)  For more on War Horse see

The exhibition at Circa is a taste of what is still to come at a charity auction at Bonhams in London where a set of War Horse puppets which will be sold off later this year (13th Sept).  This auction is to raise money for the annual 16th December parade of puppets in Barrydale, a small Karoo town. The Handspring Trust, the not-for-profit arm of the Handspring Puppet Company,  gets together annually with other NGOs like Net vir Pret which organises after-school and holiday activities for local children, and the Magpie Art Collective that runs craft projects in the community. They all work together with the Barrydale community and help train young people to make puppets. This year they will be making seven life-size puppet elephants. The proceeds from the Bonhams auction will go towards this.

Altogether, eight sets of War Horse puppets exist. Two sets are still in use: one in China and one is reserved for the next UK tour of War Horse, which will start in September 2017.

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Sputniks, squirrels, skeletons and sculpture gardens: Joburg has it all this June

gateway to spaceFrom space travel, to wild-life photography, to outdoor sculpture to the workings of the human body – four blockbuster exhibitions are currently showing in Johannesburg. Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse currently has guests staying who are amazed by the current Joburg offerings – they are so pleased they are staying in such central accommodation and are making sure they get to all of these exhibitions.

Gateway to Space opens today 1st June at Sandton Convention Centre and will show until 31 July.  Exhibits include the first space craft; a battery operated space vehicle that transports astronauts around the moon; Yuri Gargarin’s 1961 space suit; a space shuttle cockpit; space food; moon rock and lots more besides. There are at least 40 explanatory videos and an interactive space area. Tickets for adults are R180; under 18s R120; Seniors R150 (weekdays only).

Sci-Bono Discovery Centre Newtown

Sci-Bono Discovery Centre Newtown

At Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown until 30th June is Body Worlds showing Dr Gunther von Hagens’ plastinated bodies.  Don’t be put off by the fact that these are real bodies and actual body parts on display – their presentation is in no way macabre or sensationalized and you won’t feel squeamish at all.   (Apparently there is an oversupply of people wanting to donate their bodies for this kind of educational initiative). When I visited the exhibition, there were busloads of school children leaving. What an opportunity to learn about biology and the human body in an absorbing and fascinatingly direct way.

Tickets are R140 for adults, R110 for seniors and students, R90 for the young  between 6 and 17 and R400 for a family booking. For more see www.jhblive/events/dead_bodies_everywhere/13695

Fox Junction before any development and upgrade

Fox Junction an amazing industrial heritage site, before any development and upgrade


Remaining in the city centre, there is another international exhibition of a completely different order: Wildlife Photography of the Year is currently on a global tour from London’s Natural History Museum. Showing at Fox Junction 1 Main St (further south of Newtown and formerly Sheds@1Fox), this exhibition showcases some of the very best wildlife photography taken around the world during the past year and includes all the winning images and finalists from the 2015 awards. On until 31st July. Entrance is R50 with children under 6 free.





Nirox 010

And if you want to get out into the country away from the urban buzz, (only 45 minutes from Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse) the grounds at Nirox Foundation are quite sublime and they are only open to the public when there is an event or an exhibition.  So make the most of  Nirox’ winter sculpture exhibition A Place in Time (until 30th July) curated by Helen Phebey, Curator at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The best news of all is that entrance is free. It’s a great opportunity to enjoy some wonderful art works and a breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful landscape setting out in the Cradle of Humankind.

Desperate for things to do with children over school holidays (schools break up on 24th June)?  You can see there’s lots for locals and tourists to do during these shorter winter Jozi days. (And watch this space for more kids holiday activities.)

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Liz’s Pick of the Week 15th May

5 15 May Kingsmead Book FairIf you didn’t get to Franschhoek for the annual literary festival this May, and can’t make the UCT summer school, the next best thing (well nearly the next best thing) is the one day event locally in Rosebank : The Kingsmead Book Fair this Saturday 21st May.  Admittedly there are no mountains, vineyards and Cape Dutch gables …. but it will be a day packed with debate, discussion and dissection of all things literary, cultural, social and political. Registration for the day is R50 and sessions (R50 per session) start at 10. There are 6  time slots with multiple panel discussions in each session, so it’s really difficult to make decisions about which to attend.  There is something for everybody with panels on the state of the SA economy, on ‘state capture’, water security, the Rwandan genocide; the status of SA cricket; stories from survivors of rape, kidnapping and hostage-taking; renowned authors, film-makers and playwrights discussing their craft; visual artists in conversation; chefs and authors of recipe books demonstrating and sharing their love of food; and much more besides.

For the full programme see There is limited space for sessions and many get booked up so make sure you book in advance.

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