Stage production phenomenon War Horse truly goes global later this year when Joey, the Handspring Puppet Company horse, comes home to South Africa, writes Theresa Smith.

Pieter Toerien knew the first time he saw War Horse in London seven years ago that he had to bring it to South Africa, even though the size of the production would make it a seriously expensive exercise.

“It’s been the longest but nicest negotiation period of my career,” said Toerien, who finally got his way with the help of sponsors Rand Merchant Bank.

The company currently touring the UK will bring the show to Joburg in October and Cape Town in December.

With a cast of around 35 actors and puppeteers, plus the technicians who run the sound, video projection and lighting, this is a huge show.

It was first staged by the National Theatre of Great Britain in 2007.

Puppeteer/designer/performer Craig Leo was on stage as one of the puppeteers manipulating the Joey horse character, and he remembers standing in the dark during the curtain call after the first show, “and everyone was popping up out of their seats. It was gobsmacking, an awe-inspiring experience”.

“Everyone was so nervous, wondering ‘how’s this going to go down?’ You’ve got a lead character that is a horse, that doesn’t speak and it’s a puppet. How are people going to respond?

“The response was overwhelming.

“From then on, it was clear it was going to work, though no one had any idea of the magnitude,” said Leo.

Drawing on aspects of musicals, dramas and puppetry with a huge dollop of technical wizardry, the production is not easy to categorise, and the magic lies in the life-size horses created by the Handspring Puppet Company.

In the company the actors are referred to as the fourth puppeteer, aiding the three people manipulating the head, heart and hind of the horse. The aim is to encourage a suspension of disbelief.

“What they essentially do is bring the horse to life. They need to feel the hot breath coming out of the horse’s nostrils, they have to totally buy it.

“The puppets are so beautifully created and the first time we introduce them to the actors, they are in awe. They’re life-sized, powerful objects.

“So the actors help to get the audience to believe,” explained Leo.

He worked as a puppeteer for two years on the London stages, before taking a break and then eventually going back to the show as a puppetry director.

Leo is in Amsterdam now, putting a new batch of performers through their paces for a Dutch production that starts in June.

The show on at London’s West End is in its sixth successful year.

In addition there is a production touring the US, and another has opened in Berlin, Germany. It was also the longest-running show in Toronto, Canada, and also recently toured Australia.

Earlier this year Leo helped train three sets of South African performers in how to manipulate the horses, creating a potential local reserve of puppeteers.

Having worked with the various groups around the world, Leo realised that each production was slightly different, depending on not only the crew and how they interacted with each other, but also on each country’s relationship with World War I.

Author Michael Morpurgo’s original story is centred on a boy named Albert who follows his horse Joey, which has been requisitioned, into the war zone.

“My personal experience with World War I was very limited, so for me the story is a wonderful love story between the boy and his horse, told poetically.

“From a production point of view, you’re watching a high-end show and along with that, if you don’t know anything about World War I, you’ll come away with a deeper sense of what it meant to people. It shifted people’s views of war… they went riding in on the backs of horses, but came back inside tanks,” said Leo.

Once the decision was taken to create a touring show, the production had to change to accommodate spaces different from the arena-style New London Theatre.

“The West End space is open, which brings the production to you. Our task when we made the show for Australia and the ones that tour the world was to relook at how we could still make it immediate in a proscenium arch situation. It’s about bringing the story forward, down stage. Restaging things so it doesn’t feel like it’s far away and happening back there,” explained Leo.

While the story has stayed the same, it includes some ameliorated or new scenes, “extra bits and pieces that help to reinforce the pain and suffering of World War I and how communities were pulled apart and destroyed by the advent of the war”.

In addition to restaging the show, it was decided to use only English for the touring shows – unlike the West End production which also makes use of French and German


“It’s interesting, when you’re forced to work in a language that is not yours, the physical style of the performance is highlighted, which lends itself to puppetry,” said Leo.

He laughs when I mention the goose puppet: “I worked for weeks perfecting the horses, and that goose steals the show. I heard it all the time, people fall in love with that puppet.

“It’s great that the goose is such a memorable character and it speaks to the skill of Basil (Jones) and Adrian (Kohler),” said Leo. Jones and Kohler established the Handspring Puppet Company in 1981.

During its run on Broadway in the US, War Horse won five Tony Awards plus a special Tony Award for the Handspring Puppet Company.

Every single puppet in all the War Horse productions around the world is handcrafted in the Handspring Puppet Company’s workshop near Muizenberg, so it is only fitting that the horse gets to show off at home.

War Horse is presented in South Africa by Pieter Toerien, Rand Merchant Bank and The National Theatre of Great Britain, in association with Handspring Puppet Company, at Montecasino in Joburg from October 22 to November 30 and Artscape Opera House in Cape Town from December 5 to January 4. Tickets: R100 to R450 from Computicket.