Backing the right horse
David Emmings, one of three operators of a horse puppet which will be featured in the stage production of War Horse. Photo: Ben Rushton
Like all horses, their ears twitch inquisitively. A shake of the mane is followed by a swish of the tail. There is a familiar clip-clop sound, a high-pitched neigh, even the occasional rear onto hind legs. Squint your eyes and these towering creations look and behave exactly like horses. Move closer, though, and their sleek bodies are found to be made from cane and gauze, steel and leather, their movements controlled with pedals and pulleys 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 of Great Britain 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 a moving story about 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.
Their bond is portrayed with themes of loyalty and bravery in an era of violent terror, taking Albert and Joey on a treacherous adventure from rural Devon to the battlefields of France.
Since it premiered in London in 2007, the show has moved audiences to tears, not least Steven Spielberg, who adapted the play into a Hollywood film.
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,'' Barr says.
''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 on December 31 at Melbourne's State Theatre.
''It's like you become one person after a while,'' says Keira Lyons, who controls Joey's ''behind''.
''The first few days we could barely walk but gradually we've become in tune with each other through breathing and listening.''
The strain is both physical and mental, meaning different teams are required to alternate horses throughout each season. There is one compliment they all want to hear.
'' 'I forgot you were there' is the best thing any audience could say,'' Lyons says. ''If we disappear from sight and the focus is purely on the horse then we're doing our job.''
War Horse runs at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney from March 16 to June 30 2013.