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Khanyi Magubane

When astute horseman Major Richard Waygood, Riding Master of the Household Cavalry, heard about the National Theatre’s new production War Horse, he just had to go and see it. The show uses life-size horse puppets made in South Africa, and so impressed was he that he wrote in his Guardian review, “Fifteen minutes into this play, adapted from Michael Morpurgo's novel about a cavalry horse in the First World War, I started to believe I was watching real horses.”

The play is about the love of a young boy called Albert for his beloved horse Joey. Joey is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. The horse goes through horrible trials and tribulations during the war, but through the tireless endeavours of Albert, they are eventually reunited.

The internationally renowned South African Handspring Puppet Company created the exquisite puppets designed by top English theatre designer Rae Smith. For their collaboration, the Handspring company and Smith have walked away with the prestigious Evening Standard Theatre Award for the Best Design. The award is one of the four most important theatre awards in the UK.

Basil Jones, co-founder of the Handspring Puppet Company, says working on War Horse has been an amazing experience. “Most big theatres put on Christmas shows, but the National has been developing a reputation for putting on challenging Christmas Shows that don’t speak down to children.” He says as the show has all the elements of a war story, it makes for riveting viewing. “This is a show set in the middle of the First World War, so it’s not normal children’s viewing, but it plunges the children into a kind of war experience that is very real and very moving. Both children and adults come out of it very moved and enriched by the experience.”

Speaking from his Cape Town office, Jones describes the process of putting together the puppet element of the show as very intricate and involved. After Smith had designed the animals, it was the company’s challenge to interpret her vision into moving props. “It took about a year to design a life-size functioning horse,” said Jones. “We had to ensure that the mechanics of the horse were right for the manipulators.

“In the beginning, we made a horse that functioned well, but the ergonomics were not right. After consulting with a physiotherapist, we needed to tweak and revise the mechanisms, as we wanted to ensure that in the long run we wouldn’t have a case of repetitive stress syndrome for the puppeteers.” It took a further 18 months before 10 similar horses were created and shipped to England.

When all was in place, the show opened its doors to the public. The National has since been inundated with audiences eager to see the spectacle, and the show has been well received by the critics. “People across the industry are saying that we have raised the bar. The reviews have been absolutely astonishing and right across the board we have had great reviews on the realism if the horses,” says Jones. So popular has the show become that English celebrities, including actress Vanessa Redgrave and theatre legend Andrew Lloyd Webber, have been to see it.

In a bid to give the show even more of a South African flavour, a puppeteer from the Handspring Company, Craig Leo, was given an opportunity to be part of the production, thanks to the generous sponsorship of AngloGold Ashanti. The gold mining company’s ongoing sponsorship covered Leo’s flight to London and accommodation for the duration of the show, including rehearsals. “We were very keen to have one of our puppeteers be part of the production. The theatre was also enthusiastic about the idea, but did not have the budget to fly him to London and accommodate him for the seven-month duration. That’s when we approached AngloGold and they jumped on the idea,” Jones explains.


In recognition of the award received by Handspring, Arts and Culture Minister Dr Pallo Jordan praised the company for its accomplishment. “Their achievement has not only put this country on the global map but reveals the now obvious fact that South African talent is of world standard, if not above. The winning of the Evening Standard Theatre Award for the Best Design marks a turning point in how indigenous creativity, especially cultural production and export, shall be perceived by the world,” reads the minister’s statement.


The show runs at the National until 14 February 2008.

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