I have the dubious honour of living in a sleepy little town in the Eastern Cape, which every year hosts the biggest Arts Festival in South Africa. So I have seen the Handspring Puppet Company in action, live. The last play I saw of theirs was Tall Horse, about a giraffe in the London zoo, but I haven’t seen their new play, War Horse, which is currently debuting on Broadway. This one is about an actual horse and from the video clips that I have seen it looks amazing:
The company was founded in 1981, by four lads from Cape Town, and has leapt from success to success ever since then. This latest work is a collaboration between Handspring, who designed the horse, and acclaimed English theatre choreographer Tony Sedgewick, who was in charge of ‘horse choreography.’
Image via: This is London
The design for the horse grew out of a previous design: that of the hyena used in Faustus of Africa, but imagined on a much grander scale. Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, two of the founders of handspring, gave a TED talk on the growth of the puppet from hyena to horse:
There is a magical moment in all of their productions, when you forget about the people who are manipulating the puppet and it takes on a life of its own. It always amazes me how they are able to wring such genuine emotion from a mere construction of cloth, wood and leather. The TED video goes some way in explaining how it is done, especially when they describe the movement of a horse’s ears and how it conveys feeling, but it in no way compares to seeing it live.
Image via: The Telegraph
The creators describe their puppetry as ‘emotional engineering’, bringing life to the inanimate. Even though no attempt is made to disguise the actors who control the puppet, somehow they fade into the background and the puppet takes centre stage.