"A puppeteer is an engineer of the emotions," Basil Jones says. Those emotions are exercised to the hilt in War Horse, the London megahit currently playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
Jones and his partner, Adrian Kohler, of the Handspring Puppet Company, are the puppet masters responsible for the show's star — Joey, the titular steed. Joey is living a happy life in Devon with his master, the young Albert, when World War I begins. He is sold to the cavalry, takes part in horrific fighting and is captured by the Germans. Albert, still too young to fight, lies about his age, signs up anyway and heads to Europe to rescue him.
Joey is operated by three actors — two inside, controlling the body and legs, and one in front manipulating the head. He is "a little taller than the tallest natural horse," Jones says, and weighs nearly 80 pounds. "So if you add the weight of the rider," Kohler says, "and divide by half, that's how much [they're] carrying."
The National Theatre of Great Britain production, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, has been selling out for over three years. It is based on a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo and was adapted by Nick Stafford. Morpurgo has said he chose to tell the story through the horse's eyes to convey "the universal suffering of that war in which ten million people died, and unknown millions of horses." Some historians estimate that of the million British horses sent to France from 1914 to 1918, only about 62,000 returned.
Making sure the puppeteers could support a rider was a major challenge, Kohler says. "We put a ladder between the shoulders of two puppeteers and put an actor sitting atop between them.... The ladder on the shoulders meant that the puppeteers' heads were sticking up, so we [later] put backpacks on the actors and raised the ladder higher."
They built a prototype horse around that possibility, with an aluminum bridge attached to the two backpacks. The horse's ears and tail add to the emotional components of the design.
Jones emphasizes the importance of the puppeteers: "It's an astonishing achievement — that these three actors can create such a powerful presence onstage."
Joey is part of a grand stable of puppet horses. "There are nine horses," Kohler says, "two crows, a goose, six soldiers..." Jones adds with a smile: "...and a partridge in a pear tree."