War Horse: “Indefinable Magic”
"For a lot of performers, War Horse has opened the door to a whole world of theatre and film that they weren’t necessarily en route towards."
Jimmy Grimes admits he’s generalising a bit, but there was a time when puppetry in Britain “disappeared into Punch and Judy”.
Fresh from leading a children’s puppetry workshop at Oxford’s New Theatre, he says the art form did become associated mainly with children’s entertainment for a while. Puppetry for kids is a beautiful thing, he points out, but that doesn’t mean puppets can’t entertain everyone else.
During said disappearance, he states, there may have been lots of small puppet companies creating ambitious and adventurous work – but puppetry “wasn’t so much in the public domain. It wasn’t something that was hitting big audiences.” However, he says, popular shows The Lion King, Avenue Q, and War Horse “either began or marked a shift” in attitudes: “Audiences have realised you can enjoy puppets as an adult.”
Grimes actually spent three and a half years of his life working on War Horse, which owes its puppetry to Handspring Puppet Company. He joined the hit National Theatre production as a puppetry assistant – shadowing Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié in rehearsals.
Over time he learned Handspring’s approach, “a very particular approach, a beautiful approach”, becoming associate puppetry director in his final year with the show – which has now been seen by over 7 million people worldwide.
Most of the puppeteers he trained for War Horse were actors who’d never done puppetry before, he says. Now, having learned the craft, “many of them have gone on to work in all sorts of fields of puppetry. So they’ll work in special effects on film, they’ll work with other puppet companies, they’ll create their own puppet work. For a lot of performers, War Horse has opened the door to a whole world of theatre and film that they weren’t necessarily en route towards.”
The show, he claims, is “a visually spectacular piece of theatre – the puppetry is incredible, there’s nothing really quite like it. But at the heart of it there’s a beautiful story that people will connect with.” War Horse was adapted for stage by Nick Stafford from the original Michael Morpurgo novel. Set during the First World War, it’s the story of a friendship between farm boy Albert and his horse Joey. It does depict, Grimes says, a “tragic, terrifying period of history”, but it addresses this period in a way “that perhaps is a bit friendlier to younger audiences and families”.
The horses onstage are each controlled by three puppeteers; two inside the horse operating the body, and one outside the horse taking care of the head. A certain bond forms between the puppeteers, claims Grimes. They spend months working together, he says, co-ordinating one puppet between them, and thus “become so incredibly connected; they learn to communicate in the most detailed way. So any slight movement in the puppet, any slight shift in weight, they will feel – and they’ll know what it means. They develop this amazing relationship.” Without that relationship, he says, you can achieve good puppetry, but you “won’t ever do that thing that’s just indefinable magic”.
War Horse is at New Theatre Oxford 13 December-6 January.
Top Image © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Bottom Image © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Related Articles: War Horse comes to Oxford