'We breathe together to create one life.' Photo: Joseph Feil
''WE ALL have to have the same thought at the same time,'' says Nick Barlow. ''We breathe together to create the one life.''
Barlow is one of three puppeteers working on a single, crucial stage presence - the equine figure at the centre of War Horse, the West End and Broadway hit that has its Australian premiere at Melbourne's Arts Centre on New Year's Eve.
War Horse is based on a book set during World War I by children's author Michael Morpugo. It is the story of a 16-year-old country boy and his devotion to a horse called Joey. The horse is bought by the cavalry and shipped to the Western Front, where the boy follows him.
Nick Barlow controls the head of warhorse Joey, Nick Eaton is 'heart', or front legs, and Sarah Nelson is 'hind', the back legs. Photo: Joseph Feil
Joey appears on stage - stamping, snorting, rearing, life-size and utterly believable. The horse puppets, designed and built by South African company Handspring, are handmade and controlled by hand, made out of materials such as cane, mesh and wire cables. The puppeteers' roles are divided into what are called ''head, heart and hind''.
As a member of the specialised team playing Joey, Barlow controls the head, Nick Eaton is ''heart'', or front legs, and Sarah Nelson is ''hind'', the back legs. The puppet is not particularly heavy. Yet a sense of weight, of the size and heaviness of a horse, is one of the many things they have to convey.
It is demanding work, so there is a rotation policy. There are two equine characters in the play, and there are four horse teams, two specialised and two ''switch'' teams.
Each team performs four times a week; in the other shows, the puppeteers play ensemble characters - anything from a German soldier to an English villager.
People often assume, say Barlow, Eaton and Nelson, that the puppeteers' task is confined to movement. But the sounds also come from them: they are miked, and they provide all the breathing, squealing and neighing - another instance of the way they need to work in unison.
All three talk about the importance of the audience's imagination, and a potential, amid minutely choreographed movement, for openness and variation in performance. Different Joeys have different personalities: theirs is said to be the cheeky, playful one. But Joey is always portrayed as an animal, they hasten to add, there's never a suggestion that they are projecting human emotions onto the horse.
War Horse was first performed by Britain's National Theatre in 2007. It was devised to engage a younger audience, to reach beyond the company's traditional base, and it was scheduled for 40 performances.
No one in their wildest dreams, says National Theatre producer Chris Harper, would have imagined what a hit it would be, at home and abroad. This is the NT's most successful production. It is in its second year on Broadway, where it won five Tonys, plus a special award for Handspring. At a time of arts funding cuts, its profits have been a lifesaver for the company.
''I was passionate about bringing it here.'' says Harper. He knew the place of World War I in the Australian consciousness, he says, but being here on Anzac Day - and on a flight to Sydney, when a minute's silence was observed - reinforced for him ''how much it is part of the DNA of Australia''.
War Horse will be seen in Berlin next year, and there are plans to stage it in many other countries.
Harper still remembers the first time he saw Handspring's horse puppets: even in an early, rudimentary form, they were still magical, he recalls. Handspring has flourished because of War Horse, he notes. ''Five or six years ago, it was a company of four. They now have a factory of 39 people making the puppets.''
Yet they still take nine months to create, painstakingly, by hand. The show can only go to new territories, he says, when the horses are ready.