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'War Horse' gallops into the South Florida this week

The novel, movie and stage versions of War Horse are as different as apples and oranges and, oh, carrots.

Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel for young people is told from the point of view of Joey, a British farm lad’s beloved horse sent into battle in France during World War I. Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated 2011 film is a beautiful, harrowing and ultra-realistic treatment of Joey’s story. And the stage version, which came to life at London’s Royal National Theatre in 2007 and went on to win the best play Tony Award in 2011?

That War Horse is an example of theatrical craftsmanship and magic of the highest order.

War Horse, which begins a two-week run on Tuesday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, is an extraordinary piece of theater, in no small part because Joey and his rival-turned-friend Topthorn are portrayed by life-sized puppets. But before you cringe or think that the stage War Horse sounds like something for kids, think again. Chances are you’ve never seen a “puppet” as strikingly sculptural yet persuasively alive as the ones Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler created for War Horse.

In truth, if not for the South African pair and their Cape Town-based Handspring Puppet Company, the hugely successful stage version of War Horse and Spielberg’s subsequent movie might not exist at all.

Tom Morris, an associate director at the National, was looking for pieces to develop in 2004. He and executive director Nick Starr went to Cape Town to see a play featuring a life-sized giraffe puppet created by Handspring. On that flight, the director read a copy of Morpurgo’s novel (written 22 years earlier) because his mother had suggested it might be good material for a future project. Thus began a three-year developmental process, leading to a play that exceeded anyone’s expectations; as Starr said recently from London, “It’s impossible to think up a success like that.”

War Horse was put together at the National Theatre Studio, an arm of the government-subsidized theater and a place in which theater artists can experiment without the pressure of a looming opening night. In the first workshop at the start of 2005, Kohler and Jones worked with actors and simple puppets. As the project grew, Marianne Elliott joined Morris as co-director, playwright Nick Stafford was hired to adapt Morpurgo’s novel, and designer Rae Smith was tasked with developing the look of the show.

A key challenge for Stafford was the change in perspective from the novel to the stage.

“It was decided that the horse wouldn’t speak, so you have a shift in perspective from first to third person,” Stafford said by phone from London. “The horse became a character in the larger story. … He was de-anthropomorphized.”

Morpurgo was concerned at first when he heard that Joey and Topthorn would be portrayed by life-sized puppets operated by a trio of actors.

“I thought of the characters in pantomimes — a cloth horse,” the author said on a visit to Fort Lauderdale when the War Horse tour was announced. “I said no, no pantomime horse. Then I saw the giraffe Handspring made, and it brought tears to my eyes. Three people became one. They made this creature live.”

Starr describes the National’s War Horse as “a real act of collaborative storytelling. It’s a sophisticated version of folk art, the story of a boy who is on a quest.”

That boy is Albert Narracott, a Devon farmer’s son who raises Joey from a spirited colt to a stallion who adapts, of necessity, to farm work. With the advent of World War I, Albert’s father sells Joey to the British Army, leaving his son heartbroken and putting Joey in horrific danger — more than 8 million horses died during a war that claimed some 17 million human lives. Though he’s too young to fight, Albert lies about his age and secretly enlists, determined to find Joey and bring him home.

The story has myriad elements: the unbreakable bond between humans and animals, the terrible price of war, the bravery of two- and four-legged soldiers, life, death, love. But what makes War Horse so thrilling and unforgettable are its Handspring horses.

Kohler and Jones talked with experts in horse behavior, studied horses and videos of them, then went to work. Weighing 120 pounds (vs. half a ton, give or take, for a real horse), the theatrical Joey is fashioned from bent cane, fabric that looks opaque but allows the actor-puppeteers to see out, an aluminum spine for strength, haunting glass eyes, moveable ears, and a mane and tail made of leather-looking Tyvek. The audience always sees the legs of the two performers inside the horse and the third actor operating the head, but because of the design and the way the horse is manipulated — Joey trots, gallops, twitches his ears, seems to breathe — the audience quickly becomes complicit in the play’s make-believe. It doesn’t hurt that several actors actually ride the horses.

Kohler, who observes that what the audience is looking at “is a fairly abstract version of a horse,” remembers the first workshop version of what has become a key dramatic moment in the show. The colt version of Joey falls apart, and the full-sized Joey gallops onto the stage.

“Nick Starr was sitting where baby Joey ‘explodes’ and becomes big Joey. We could see the moment when the executive producer of the National gave War Horse the green light,” Kohler said recently from the duo’s home in Cape Town.

As the horse puppets progressed from simple to astonishing, playwright Stafford adapted his script to give them more stage time.

“The more the horse developed, the more space it demanded,” he said. “It didn’t bother me at all. It felt really exciting.”

The prolific Morpurgo, who calls War Horse “the first decent children’s book I wrote,” is as affected as anyone by the extraordinary Handspring horses and the play the National created.

“The play lets the audience make the intellectual journey to create the real horse. This enables you, if you’re 8 or 80, to imagine as far as you can. It’s much more akin to reading a book,” he said. “When I come out of the play, I feel wrecked. I cry at different times. I can’t cope with the horse rearing up on the [barbed] wire, that scream. It’s a huge cry for peace.”

Jones and Kohler have expanded Handspring because of the success of War Horse, employing 25 people who have thus far turned out some 90 horses for various productions and promotional purposes. Jones said that auditioning actors to perform as Joey or Topthorn is like a master class, starting out with paper puppets and progressing to being inside the horse. Actors, dancers and puppeteers have all been hired, but Kohler said an additional skill is key: “We have to see whether they can suppress their ego, to do what makes the performance right.”

For the National, War Horse has been a gamble that continues to pay off. The show is making the company 3 million pounds (more than $4.6 million) per year, which is half the National’s yearly fundraising goal. And the show’s key players, Starr said, don’t ever eat into its profits.

“The horses are the stars of the show,” he said. “But they don’t ask for a wage increase.”