At last ‘our’ Horse returns home …

War Horse comes to Joburg

When I was out of town in April of this year and missed the Live HD screening  at Cinema Nouveau of London National Theatre’s production of War Horse, I was deeply disappointed. So I am like a kid in the proverbial candy store knowing that I will soon add to the statistic of 5 million people who have seen War Horse since it opened at the National Theatre in 2007.

Joey, the main protagonist of  War Horse has captured public attention in the buildup to the opening of the show on 22nd October.  The play, commissioned by the National Theatre in London,  is based on Michael Morpurgo’s story about horses sent to the battlefields during World War I.  In the production soldiers are played by live actors while the horses are life size puppets, the creation of the famous Handspring Puppet Company.

Woyzeck – and early collaboration between Kentridge and Handspring Puppets

Woyzeck on the Highveld Photo: Handspring Puppet Company
Woyzeck on the Highveld Photo: Handspring Puppet Company

I have been in awe of the work of the Handspring Puppet Company [HPC] since I saw one of their earlier theatre pieces back in 1992: Woyzeck on the Highveld, directed by William Kentridge.   In this haunting adaptation of Georg Büchner’s play, the story of a poor mineworker is hauntingly told against the backdrop created through William Kentridge’s projected drawings of  a harsh industrialized landscape.

History of Handspring

Handspring Puppet Company was started in 1981 with 4 former students from Michaelis Art School in Cape Town and while it has always functioned as a collective, its name is now synonymous with 2 of its co-founders:  Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones.  Their main aims when they started were to produce innovative children’s theatre that was rooted in Africa and to promote  puppetry as a significant theatre form.  The Company’s name was drawn from the Russian puppet master Sergey Vladimir Obraztsov’s philosophy that ‘the soul of the puppet lies in the palm of the hand’.  ‘This’ says Jones, ‘was a way of saying that glove puppets [rather than marionette string puppets] are best. …The rod puppet, which kind of comes out of the glove, was a form we decided on.’  (A. Sichel citing Jones in Handspring Puppet Company edited by Jane Taylor 2009 p 168).

Handspring’s early work

Shadow puppetry from Confessions of Zeno
Shadow puppetry from Confessions of Zeno

Sadly I did not see their very early work but saw 4 of the subsequent HPC/Kentridge collaborations: Faustus in Africa 1995; The Return of Ulysses  1998;  Ubu and the Truth Commission 1996 and Confessions of Zeno 2001; as well as Tall Horse 2004, a joint venture with the Sogolon Puppet Troupe from Mali.  In each production the puppet mechanisms were refined and improved with the multi-disciplined collaborations becoming increasingly demanding. I still cannot fully get my head around the extraordinary creativity of these productions; the complexity and intricacy of the puppets; the skill and artistry of their manipulators; or the nuanced synergies between live actors, puppets (both human and animal), and their puppeteers.

From  Japanese Bunraku’s exposed style of performing to puppeteer as co-performer

The power and seduction of the puppets lies in their will to create – and yes I use an active construction here knowingly – their will to create a complete suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, to encourage empathy with the characters.  The human puppets are wooden dolls attempting to be real people.

Photo Handspring Puppet Company (ed Taylor, J. 2009 p80)
Photo Handspring Puppet Company (ed Taylor, J. 2009 p80)

In the case of these human puppets, two puppeteers manipulate one puppet.  The manipulators become actors using facial expressions to inform the audience’s understanding of the emotions of the puppet character with its immobile features.  (The puppeteers never focus on anything or anybody but their own puppets – neither audience nor fellow actors). Jones and Kohler were very influenced by the Japanese Bunraku tradition of an exposed style of performing where the puppeteers are visible but yet dressed in black to underplay their presence.   Gradually however they came to realize the virtue of an exposed style of performing, with the visible puppeteers acting out emotions and the mechanics of the puppets made visible to the audience – where the double performance of the puppet and the puppeteer together allows for  powerful identification and empathy.

Whenever the manipulators are visible, they wear costumes which are integral to the show and the puppets they operate.  So for example in Ubu and the Truth Commission, the puppeteers wore khaki dustcoats to suggest minor civil servants so integral to the successful functioning of the machinery of State.  It is the reality of the characters created by this dual performance that enables our ‘suspension of disbelief’.  And despite the fact that puppets rarely have moving facial features – from a distance body language articulates more clearly and effectively than facial expression – the success of the audience’s imaginative identification is evident when people ask:  ‘How do you make their eyes move?’ But of course the eyes don’t move.

Solutions to technical challenges


Another example of suspension of disbelief results from the solutions Kohler and Jones have found to various technical challenges, solutions which again show their minute observation of realistic details.   In the case of the horses in War Horse, Kohler realized that the anatomy of the horse’s legs and those of the humans inside would not correspond as they had done in the case of the giraffe in Tall Horse, where the 2 puppeteers were able to stand on stilts inside the giraffe with these ‘stilted legs’ ‘standing in’ for the giraffe’s legs.   There would be 10 legs under the horse not 4.  Kohler notes:

But [in the horses in War Horse] the hands of the puppeteers would be in close proximity to the puppet legs and therefore available for strong, hands-on manipulation, so the legs had the chance of being highly articulated. If I could successfully mimic the way the horse’s hoof automatically curls under as it is lifted off the ground by the lower leg, I would be able to make credible horse legs that would easily pull focus from the human legs walking beside them under the horse.  The evolution of the jointing of the horse legs in War Horse had begun with the front leg of The Rhino in Woyzeck on the Highveld. It grew in a more sophisticated lever control with passive movement of the front paw of The Hyena in Faustus in Africa and finally was enlarged and employed on all four hooves of the horses. 

(Adrian Kohler in Handspring Puppet Company edited by Jane Taylor 2009 p 134)

Vital role of breath

Il Ritorno d'Ulisse Music by Monteverdi Puppet Ulisse with Basil Jones and Singer Julian Podger. Animation by William Kentridge. Theatre Malibran Venice 2008 (Source Handspring Puppet Company ed J. Taylor 2009 p 90)
Il Ritorno d’Ulisse Music by Monteverdi Puppet Ulisse with Basil Jones and Singer Julian Podger. Animation by William Kentridge. Theatre Malibran Venice 2008 (Source Handspring Puppet Company ed J. Taylor 2009 p 90)

Another example of this meticulous attention to life-like detail, is Kohler’s realization, through the singer-puppet- puppeteer relationship in the opera production of Return of Ulysses/Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, of the vital importance of breath.  He wrote about this significance:

Breath is the start of any physical movement, providing oxygen to the muscles that sustain the action. Singers take a breath before launching into a new phrase . … If the puppet breathed in at the same time as the singer, and then performed the next sung phrase breathing out, the energy and the impulses of the singer and the puppet blend. As this realization dawned on us, the task before each puppeteer became enormous. We [the puppeteers] would have to know the music intimately, down to each breath of our partners. We would not only have to know the meaning of each Italian line but, since lines are often repeated, we would have to know the emotional effect of each repetition so that this could be visibly performed in the body language of the puppet.  ….

.. when we were designing the horses for War Horse, one of the first priorities was ensuring the visible horse breath.

(Adrian Kohler in Handspring Puppet Company edited by Jane Taylor 2009 p 99)

An African aesthetic of puppetry

HPC has created a very particular genre and style of puppetry with their open-weave transparent puppets and visible puppeteers. Interestingly, Sichel argues that they have also created a particularly African aesthetic in their use and creation of a range of movement for their puppets. Jones explains that there is a fundamental technical reason for this. He says that Kohler, as the master puppet-maker, moved the centre of control from the chest to the pelvis:

What he [Adrian] inherited from Europe was a rod control inside a puppet at chest level. He felt it was more appropriate, and better for us, at pelvis level. So he moved the centre of control of the puppet downward in the puppet. This was very important for us and gave a sense of African movement. It was a real but subtle innovation which made a profound difference. 

(A. Sichel citing Jones in Handspring Puppet Company 2009 p 163)

As I write this I am already thinking that one viewing of War Horse will not do the subtleties of this extraordinary production justice – so I might save up my rands and book for an indulgent second viewing  before it closes its run in Jozi on 30th November. I even have guests from Mpumulanga who are driving to Joburg to see War Horse and  have booked here at Liz at Lancaster for their stay.

At last our South African Company has brought their production home.  So welcome home Joey!














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