Puppeteers bring Regent back to life with War Horse

By Meg Hill

The Regent Theatre has reopened with the award-winning War Horse after an almost year-long closure for restoration works.

The $19.4 million refurbishment was a partnership between the state government, the City of Melbourne and Marriner Group. A team of architects, theatre designers, specialist builders, expert trades and craftspeople worked on the 89-year-old theatre in collaboration with Heritage Victoria.

War Horse, a theatrical production from the National Theatre of Great Britain, opened at the theatre on January 10. The show has won more than 25 international awards for its story set against the backdrop of World War I.

Set around a young boy (Albert) and his horse (Joey), the show features ground-breaking puppetry work by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, who bring breathing, galloping horses to life on stage.

Puppetry director Gareth Aled said the show had achieved something special.

“Our puppets live, think, feel and are imbued with life,” he said.

“When an actor walks on stage the audience don’t doubt that they’re living, investing in their character, and the story can begin immediately.”

“When a puppet enters a space, before any story is told, the audience has to be convinced that it’s living. This often requires the puppeteer to work really hard technically and physically. If they do their job correctly an audience will forget that they exist.”

War Horse - New London Theatre
The story line follows Joey as he is shipped to fight in France. After being caught in enemy fire, he ends up serving on both sides before finding himself alone in no man’s land.

Albert, not yet old enough to enlist, embarks on a mission to bring him home.

“Joey is made out of cane, mesh, leather, aluminium and steel, all of which have a very different relationship to gravity compared to the weight of a real “half thoroughbred, half draft” adult horse,” Gareth said.

“Convincing the audience of muscle, weight and power is a constant challenge.”

“It takes three puppeteers to operate Joey: a head, heart and hind. They each have a technical task and an emotional indicator.”

Puppeteer Rianna Ash, who operates Joey’s head, said she had to have intensive personal training to build up the upper-body strength needed for the task.

“Our training also included study of horse movement including their gait, head positioning in certain movements as well as studying their psychology,” she said.

“A lot of the rehearsal process also revolved around working as a team, such as activities based around listening, using peripheral vision and focus.”

“We can’t communicate through words while performing. Instead, we pick up on each other’s impulses, whether that be a slight push to indicate we’re moving or what we call an ‘inspiration breath’ which is a short sharp intake.”

“We literally breathe and think together.”

But it’s not just the technical side that resonates with audiences and won the show its swathe of awards.

“It’s because of the universality of suffering and the futility of war – themes of community, love, loss, loyalty,” Gareth said. “An animal doesn’t engage with politics. Nor does it understand human language (English, French, German). It responds to tone, intonation, kindness and vulnerability.”

“These ideas translate to all people, all over the world. I think this is partly why the play is so impactful.”

War Horse will run until February 7 at the Regent Theatre, followed by Billy Elliot the Musical •

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