Joey and Topthorn are very special horses. They can’t breathe or gallop but have made a name for themselves in London and New York and won prizes for their South African creators.
The life-size horse puppets are the leading characters in a celebrated stage production, War Horse, which even the royal family have seen in London’s West End.
In April a second production of the play opened on Broadway, New York, where the puppets’ realistic movements again were a hit. Their creators have received a special Tony award (Broadway’s highest accolade).
Cape Town puppet masters Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones are overjoyed with the achievement of their Handspring Puppet Company, the “stable” from which the stars come.
“It’s a feather in the cap of every person here in the factory who worked on those horses,” Basil says.
When they launched their company in 1981 they focused on children’s theatre. Thanks to Barney Simon, co-founder of the Market Theatre in Joburg, they got their international break in Starbrites in London in 1991.
Seven years later Tom Morris of London’s Royal National Theatre approached them about staging War Horse.
Find love now! Click here. The story, by Michael Morpurgo, is set in World War 1 and is about a boy whose beloved horse, Joey, is sold and ends up in the British and German armies.
“We were initially doubtful it would work,” Basil says. “It’s a big challenge to make life-size puppet horses that will also have to carry riders onstage.”
The horses are made of cane, plywood and aluminium to be as light as possible. Three puppeteers control each horse, two of them inside the horse, one in front and one at the back. They carry the horse on their backs and sometimes the rider as well.
Thys Stander, one of Handspring’s craftsmen, shows us a complete horse ready for the stage.
“The puppeteers are athletic guys because a horse weighs 35 to 40 kg, not counting the saddle. The front guy manipulates the forelegs and the guy at the back moves the rear legs.”
And all the time they maintain the spirit of the story. As Basil puts it, “They’re not just puppeteers; they’re emotional engineers.”
Handspring has won a string of international awards for their puppets. A third production of War Horse will open in Toronto, Canada, early next year and further productions are in the pipeline.
Read more about the Handspring Company and their fabulous puppets in YOU, 26 May 2011. CLICK HERE to follow us on Twitter.