Head, heart and hind: each night, inhabiting large puppets made of crepe stretched over cane, three men and women in each of two teams must convince an audience they’re watching horses named Joey and Topthorn snort, bray and rear up on hind legs.
When War Horse opened at the Royal National Theatre in October 2007, Finn Caldwell was in the original cast as Topthorn’s heart: five years later, he’s directing the puppets in the Australian premiere of the hit blockbuster play, set during World War I, which opens in Melbourne in December and moves to Sydney in March.
But how do puppeteers make a horse’s personality come alive on stage, deflecting the audience’s attention from their obvious human presence? ‘‘With great difficulty,’’ Caldwell says, laughing, at the media preview in Sydney on Tuesday.
For the original London production, horse whisperer Monty Roberts, who coined the term ‘‘equus’’ for the animal’s non-verbal communication, was employed to deepen the puppeteers’ understanding.
‘‘We had to immerse ourselves in the study of horses,’’ says Caldwell. ‘‘Horses’ primary form of communication is physical: their body language, proximity and angle tells a lot about how they’re communicating with each other.
‘‘One horse looking face-on to another is a pretty aggressive form of communication. If they want to be friendly to one another, they actually look away. Who knows what’s in the horse’s head, but in my mind, I imagine they’re saying: ‘I trust you enough not to look at you’.’’
The puppeteers have spent six days a week for more than two months learning to work fluidly together as a Joey or a Topthorn team - or both. There are 12 puppeteers in all, enough to allow everyone breaks in performing, and half the puppeteers have trained to play head, heart or hind in either horse.
Caldwell says there is no attempt to disguise the puppeteer assigned to lead the horses’ heads outside the puppets. Instead, the puppeteer maintains strong eye contact with the horse, encouraging the audience to do the same.
Albert, the boy who ages from 14 to 18 in the show, learns some of this horse language. The youthful-looking West Australian-born Cody Fern, 24, beat hundreds of others to win the coveted role of the boy who inherits the extraordinary foal Joey.
Fern, who grew up close to horses in the tiny town of Southern Cross, about 400 kilometres from Perth - population 700 - was walking down the street in his home town when he got his agent’s call, telling him he’d won the role.
‘‘I think I screamed for about five minutes,’’ says Fern. ‘‘Only seven other people in the world have played Albert. To bring it to Australia - [for] me, personally - is one of those life-changing moments.’’
The puppets’ role is a little like jazz, says Drew Barr, director of the overall Australian production. Each night the puppeteers work the horses differently, keeping the actors on their toes.
‘‘It’s a story of love, loyalty, courage and determination against odds and events that we can only imagine,’’ says Barr.
But the story - ranging from the peaceful, pastoral opening scene to the trenches of war, with those who fail to fight branded "cowards" - does not valorise war. ‘‘It uses the story of Albert and Joey to question the costs of war,’’ he said.