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Horse Play
Toby Olié on developing the role of Joey for the acclaimed production War Horse
at the National Theatre

warhorseBeing something of a puppet obsessive for most of my life, and being witness to the increasing puppetry renaissance in mainstream theatre, meant that when an opportunity to be involved in something on the scale of War Horse presented itself I was prepared to sell my soul to be involved. Luckily such Faustian measures weren’t necessary, as during my final year of the BA puppetry course at The Central School of Speech and Drama I received a phone call from the National Theatre asking me to come and audition for Handspring Puppet Company for a workshop which would explore puppetry in a forthcoming production.

I had been made aware of the work of Handspring Puppet Company through my contact with Mervyn Millar in my second year’s training at Central, their ability to create theatre that combines puppets and actors in equal stead, and to produce it for adult audiences, proved to me that they are masters of their craft. And it was Mervyn who had forwarded me for the audition, as after working with Handspring as part of his PCT bursary, they had asked him to recruit a team of puppeteers, physical theatre performers and circus artists who could be put through their paces in a prototype horse to see not only if the puppet could achieve all of the actions and emotions necessary for the production, but also to see what kind of performers the physically demanding and detailed work would require.

Initially there would be three days of exploring the prototype horse ‘Joey’ with Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler from Handspring, rotating people in the different positions throughout the puppet to find a combination that worked. And while some of the more bulky performers found carrying a rider around the National Theatre studio a breeze, being the lanky puppeteer I am, I channelled my efforts into emoting as much as I could through whatever components of the horse I was given. From this the three of us that were chosen to puppeteer Joey in the workshop were a pretty mixed bag: Jamie, an actor would be the external puppeteer on Joey’s head, Tommy, an acrobat, was the front legs, and myself, a puppeteer, on the hind legs and tail.

What was to follow was a three-week investigation (followed by another month with the finalised puppets in March 2007) with the creative team into the horse’s physical vocabulary, whilst workshopping the text with actors alongside. We looked at Joey the horse’s relationships with the various different characters he encounters, and finding different ways that they could relate to the puppet; this in turn came from our own study of equine behaviour with Handspring, with Mervyn and with Toby Sedgwick (the movement director on the show). Using video footage and farm visits to analyze how various parts of the horse react under different emotions, allowed us to communicate as much as possible with only an ear flick, a shoulder judder or a swish of the tail.


As it had become apparent very quickly that all three manipulators operating their parts of the horse in unison didn’t work in the more calm, emotional moments, so the ability to ‘pass the ball’ to each other meant that the ability to restrain our own movements added to the horse’s subtle emoting. As well as Joey’s emotional range, the sheer physical scope of movements the horse does throughout the play, and indeed the original novel, needed to be explored. Could Joey rear up? Plough? Trot? Gallop? All of these actions were explored, and while through everybody’s determination and enthusiasm we achieved an extremely full range of action from the puppet, including how a puppet horse might die and the audience witness the manipulators exiting its cane frame.

To get the majesty of a horse at full stretch during a gallop (an image we were now very familiar with from Eadweard Muybridge’s ’In Motion’ photography), it required what became known as ‘hoofers’. These are four extra puppeteers who each manipulate one of the horse’s legs, allowing the limbs to be held mid-air for longer periods of time than my and Tommy’s wrists would allow. Not only was the stirring slow-motion image of a galloping horse formed, but it also meant that our hands were free to allow us to lift the body of the horse off our shoulders and away from the ground, meaning that Joey could now leap through the air!

Throughout these workshops I couldn’t help but be reminded of examples, either of my own experience, or from others, about puppetry being integrated into a more ‘conventional’ performance style, and how the end result so often looks underdeveloped and tacked on to the main action. Hence I was extremely pleased and excited that no-one on this project seemed to be underestimating the amount of work and time that was needed not only get the central, non-speaking, puppet character to work, but also to integrate it into the performance.

So when Tommy and I were asked to perform the role of Joey in the final production alongside veteran Handspring puppeteer Craig Leo, we knew we were in safe hands. This was never more evident than in the start of rehearsals, which officially was called ‘puppet training’, since the National had allocated an extra two weeks prior to rehearsals for Handspring to work with the nine puppet-specific performers who would be operating the central horses and Emilie, the Bunraku French girl. Already this gave us what I had strived to achieve in my own experiences integrating puppetry into shows, the chance for the puppeteers to explore the puppets and create a foundation of vocabulary with them before the actor’s work begins.


The fact that Tommy and I had the luxury of working together for eight weeks previously meant that we were able to offer extra insight to those dealing with the strains of maintaining hoof gaits, or creating the illusion of a horse’s weight, and in turn reinforce them within our own discoveries in the new Joey puppet. And on the day that rehearsals began with the whole company, it was a great joy to see that we were indeed a company, the puppeteers wouldn’t scuttle off to another room with Handspring to develop the horses, only to have their action just dropped into a scene. The actors and puppets were directed in unison, allowing the characters and horses to make discoveries about a scene’s action or pace at the same time. This was invaluable when creating believable relationships between Joey and the human characters, especially his owner Albert.

It did help however that the production had two directors, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, both from very different theatre backgrounds, which meant that they offered particular insight into their own field of excellence. Marianne would work on getting the meaning from text with the actors and Tom would offer the puppeteers suggestions on how to be as concise as possible with the puppets in terms of storytelling, and how they could exist on stage without upstaging. Then, once the framework of a scene and the actor’s blocking had been established, specific detail in puppet-heavy sequences – like the fight between Joey and Topthorn, or the cavalry charge – would be worked through with Basil and Adrian in the later part of the day. This was vital as it now became apparent that although we could replicate the physicality of horses, they now needed to have different personalities, as the military thoroughbred Topthorn goes on a very different journey throughout the play to the farm horse Joey. Their personalities and their relationship as a whole were found through charting who was the alpha horse, as this position of authority shifts in act two. This meant that Tophorn was clearly more confident and calm in the initial cavalry scenes, when Joey is the slightly rebellious draught horse, whereas Joey’s confident leadership in the manual work for the German army throughout the second act highlights a more skittish, vulnerable Topthorn.

These horses have a particularly unique way of operating, not only in bringing an audience to tears, but in terms of the relationship between their three manipulators. Like any puppet with multiple puppeteers, it requires group co ordination and elements like breath help to maintain this. However, the structure of the horses mean that your physical relationship to each other as puppeteers dictates the puppet’s movements as much as any of its rods or triggers. The two interior puppeteers are in direct physical contact, both with the horse and each other, as they are strapped to its metal, load-bearing spine, and the front manipulator of the two has no vision of the person behind him. And although both interior puppeteers can see the third, and read meaning from the horse’s head, the third puppeteer can only read meaning from the exterior by the horse’s body movement.

With all of these different impairments, an indefinable symbiosis has appeared between the three of us, where we are in a constant state of alert, a hypersensitivity to the puppet and to each other; so if one of us decides to move, or to articulate the horse, we are ready to follow suite. And although Joey does have cues for movement and noises to react to, in order for his reactions not to become anthropomorphic, it became important to block out any of the actor’s language and allow Joey to respond purely to the tone and pitch of voices. However, when the horse exhales ‘coincidentally’ at a point of tension between actors, and it gets a laugh, you know that the illusion is working.

Toby Olié trained in puppetry at The Central School of Speech and Drama, and now works as a puppetry performer, designer/maker and director. Theatre credits as a performer include: War Horse (The National Theatre & Handspring Puppet Company), Angelo (The Little Angel Theatre) and Hospitalworks (Theatre-Rites). Toby has also been a puppeteer in development workshops for various productions, including: Satyagraha (Improbable & English National Opera), Mahabharata (Sadler’s Wells) and War Horse (The National Theatre & Handspring Puppet Company). As a designer/maker Toby has produced puppets for Disney’s The Jungle Book (The Scoop Amphitheatre), Peter Pan (Chichester Festival Theatre), Follies (Royal Theatre Northampton) and the first stage adaptation of the Gunter Grass novel Tin Drum (Embassy Theatre). He was also a freelance maker for the mask and puppet department at The Lion King (Lyceum Theatre), and was recently (February 2008) the puppetry consultant on Gentle Giant (Royal Opera House: Linbury Studio). 

War Horse is a production of the National Theatre in association with Handspring Puppet Company. It is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford, and is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris.
War Horse returns to NT Autumn 2008.


Images top to bottom:
1 Eadweard Muybridge's 'In Motion' photos
2 War Horse at NT, photo Simon Annand
3 War Horse in development,
4 War Horse at NT, photo Simon Annand

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