IN A large rehearsal studio in central Sydney, two horses are fighting to establish dominance. It's a compelling - and slightly scary - spectacle as they approach one another, heads down, ears pinned back. They circle each other, snorting and breathing heavily, then rear and lash out with their hooves. At one point they dash headlong in my direction, and I instinctively press myself against the wall, my heart beating madly.
The horses are, of course, not real. They are life-size puppets, operated by puppeteers who are clearly visible (one standing beside the head of each horse, and two strapped inside with harnesses). But the horses are so extraordinarily lifelike, in appearance and behaviour, it's easy to forget they are made of wicker and steel rather than flesh and blood.
Having been entranced by the London production of War Horse in 2010, I wondered whether seeing the puppets up close might somehow ruin the magic. But watching these horses come to life in rehearsal - without the aid of sets or stage lighting - only deepens my admiration for the show's creators and performers.
Puppeteers bring life and movement to the wicker and steel stars of War Horse. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
Adapted from Michael Morpurgo's novel of the same name, War Horse tells the story of a young English boy, Albert, and his beloved horse, Joey. The two are separated when World War I breaks out and Joey is sold to the British Army as a cavalry horse. Shipped to France, Joey experiences the horror of warfare from both sides, while a desperate Albert - still just a teenager - enlists in the hope of finding his equine companion.
The Australian production opens in Melbourne at the end of the month, before travelling to Sydney and Brisbane next year. The cast of 33 actors and puppeteers is all Australian, though several members of the creative team have been brought in from overseas productions of War Horse.
American Drew Barr, who was resident director of the Lincoln Centre production in New York, vividly remembers being struck by the show's deceptive simplicity when he first saw it in London. ''War Horse is deeply committed to the idea that theatre only exists when an audience is imaginatively active in the storytelling,'' he says. ''And that's what puppetry does: it invites the audience to discover the life that's within these objects. Once you discover it, you become kind of addicted to it and you do everything you can to keep it alive as long as possible. I think that was what struck me from the start.
Cody Fern enters into the emotional journey. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
''I was also just bowled over by the sheer scope of the storytelling, especially since the tools the show uses are so basic and fundamental. It manages to tell a story that travels across countries, and through so many years, and it really touched me - both intellectually and emotionally - very profoundly.''
Associate puppetry director Finn Caldwell has been involved with War Horse since the beginning. An experienced English actor and puppeteer, he was called in as a consultant during the research and development phase of the original show at London's National Theatre. Like Barr, he was captivated immediately - though in Caldwell's case, he was watching prototype puppets (designed by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company) marching around in a rehearsal studio.
''I remember walking into the room and seeing shadow puppets interacting with human beings, and horse puppets with people riding them … And I just thought, I've got to do this,'' he says.
Caldwell ended up performing as a puppeteer in the debut production of War Horse in 2007, before becoming associate puppetry director. ''Something that personally excites me is the interaction between a human being and a puppet,'' he says. ''The puppeteer spends a long time bringing that object to life, and that's always fascinating. But I'm also really interested in what we call the 'fourth puppeteer'. Normally, for advanced puppets like these horses, you have three operators - three puppeteers. But the fourth puppeteer is the person acting opposite the puppet. And [that actor] is lending the horses a sense of weight, and speed, and danger. So when those horses' hooves stamp on the floor, it's the actors standing next to them, jerking away, that tells us how heavy those hooves are.
''The fourth puppeteer is also lending the horse an emotional and psychological depth and truth. It's Albert's love and affection for Joey that tells us, the audience, how warm-blooded, how fantastic the spirit of this animal is.''
In the Australian production, Albert is played by Sydney actor Cody Fern. It's his first major theatre role, but Barr says he was struck by Fern's openness and sensitivity at their first meeting.
''The actor playing Albert - like the puppeteers playing Joey - almost never leaves the stage. He has to accomplish really complicated and strenuous physical tasks, and go through an enormous emotional journey. And working with Cody in the auditions, I just found that he embraced every challenge I threw at him with an incredible sense of willingness and enthusiasm and delight.''
As for the puppeteers, Barr and Caldwell selected performers with skills in acting, physical theatre, circus and dance. A cast of 12 was hired to perform as the two main horses (Joey and Topthorn), with three puppeteers to each horse - operating the ''head'', ''heart'' and ''hind'' - in rotating teams.
''You can't perform the show eight times a week as a horse; it's too physically difficult,'' Caldwell says. ''The guys and girls that we're training here are like a sports team. They have to be super fit. But they also have to be incredibly sensitive.
''So you need a really specific kind of performer: someone who really understands narrative, because [as one of the horses] you're holding the audience's attention for 2½ hours without any text.
''And someone who is physically dexterous and strong enough to be ridden. The horse puppets weigh about 60 pounds [27 kilograms]. And then you put a rider on top of them. And then you ask the horses to run. And then you turn the lights out. So it's incredibly challenging.''
Caldwell and Barr insist that, while they are remounting an existing show rather than creating a new one, the Australian production has its own distinct personality.
''The show really begins with the puppets, and when you're asking three people to come together to create a [horse's] character, it's impossible to dictate exactly what that character is,'' Barr says. ''And I love that! I'm really jazzed by the fact that no production of the play is exactly the same, because there are just too many people who participate in its creation. To be true to the story and the animals that are the heart of it, it has to always be a little bit different.''
■ War Horse opens at the State Theatre on December 31, with previews from December 23.