A scene from the National Theatre production of War Horse
(© Simon Anand)
A scene from the National Theatre production of War Horse
(© Simon Anand)
First seen in London's National Theate in 2007, War Horse is now impressing audiences at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, where it recently began previews in anticipation of an April 14 opening. While there are over 30 actors in the show; the true stars of the piece are the life-size horses created by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company's Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler.

The celebrated play is based on British author Michael Morpurgo's story of an English farm horse named Joey, who is sold into military service and sees brutal action in the mud fields of Europe during World War I, and his young owner, Albert, who enlists in the army in order to find him.

Co-director Tom Morris had seen the work of Handspring over the years, and was looking for a project he could work with them on. When Morris' mother recommended he read the novel, War Horse, he decided the right opportunity for a collaboration had arisen. "The National was looking for big shows that would appeal to mixed audiences," says Morris.

"It's quite a simple story, about a boy and his horse, so it appeals to all sorts of people and all ages, like a folk tale about human faith and courage in adversity," says co-director Marianne Elliott. "But none of us thought it would be commercial in any way. It felt like such an experimental project -- creating a horse in the lead role."

As Elliott notes, Americans may not be as aware of how prominent a role horses played during World War I. Indeed, she notes that 900,000 horses were killed during the war. "At the beginning of the war, people thought they could fight according to the old rules," she says.

To bring the story to life, War Horse employs video projections, sweeping scenic design, original music -- as well as the horses. Indeed, "puppet" is almost too frivolous a word for these remarkable constructions of leather, wicker and aircraft cable. Manipulated by two actors inside and one outside, the horses have weighted hooves that mimic an equine heavy tread; their heads bob and toss; and they become rich characters. "We would find ourselves giving notes to a human actor and to a horse," says Morris. "There was a lot of research, observing horses, reading about them, watching the details of their movements."

In addition to communicating such details as how a horse's ears move (straight up when relaxed, slanted back when upset), the actors precisely mimic neighs and snorts. Whether working inside the horses or outside, the actors -- who were trained by movement director Toby Sedgwick -- are not dressed in traditional theater black, but as farm hands in brown boots, pants, and caps. Since the horses weigh 66 pounds each, building rest time for the actors into rehearsals was essential, says Morris. "These actors learned to work together seamlessly," he says. "The teamwork within each team is infectious."

The cast is not the only new element to the Lincoln Center production, as the directors have had to adapt to the Beaumont's deep thrust stage. "We hope that you are a party to what's happening onstage," says Elliott. "You can live and breathe with the actors and the puppets."