'The Horse's Mouth: How Handspring and the National Theatre made War Horse', Mervyn Millar

Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I was very to happy to receive a spanking new copy of, 'The Horse's Mouth', from the charming folk at Oberon. It is a delightful book - even if it is more a souvenir piece, than a particularly sumptuous piece of writing. The earlier chapters, in which Mervyn Millar describes the eye-wateringly complex development process, are a little vague. Millar, writing about a process slightly out of his area of expertise, fails to stamp his style on this opening section and it lacks shape and direction. 

Some intriguing facts do, however, float to the surface. That now infamous horse, Joey, is in fact controlled by 3 different sets of 3 actors. That's 9 performers that have somehow, over countless workshops and rehearsals, become a single, living and breathing horse. The amount of research undertaken is also mind-boggling and one starts to realise how much careful chipping away went into creating the bedrock of this show. The company all but swilled in horse-shit in the run up to this production. They visited the Working Horse Trust, worked extensively with horses and watched the King's Troop (who still use training systems from World War One) put their highly trained horses, through their exquisitely timed and synchronised paces.

But it is when talking about the puppets - and the incredible combination of detail and instinct that these creations required - that Millar's interest seems piqued and his writing grows selective and compelling. He isolates a brilliant anecdote from writer Nick Stafford, whose experience with a tiny elastic band made him fully appreciate the grand beauty of these extraordinary puppets: 'I think: what a fantastic piece of machinery this is. Then I look down, and holding the joint in Joey's leg together is an elastic band. A little, tiny elastic band like the postman chucks on the ground outside my house.'

It is this insane level of detail required by the War Horse collaborators that comes across so strongly here. This was a show borne out of a collective obsession. The company must have been practically possessed, come opening night. I could barely find the will to complete one sketch of Joey, so complicated was his framework and, in the end, I fudged a lot of it. But this company, despite working on the show for over two years, never let a single detail drop. 

Yet somehow, despite all these finely-tuned details, the final product - as anyone who has seen the show will testify - is far from mechanical. Instead, 'War Horse' is so visually emphatic and so emotionally engaging, that those wooden sticks, nestled within the framework, simply disappear. So, too, do the puppeteers. When I remember Joey, I don't remember the wood holding him together or the puppeteers helping him move. Instead, I remember a beautiful, breathing horse that could run like the wind.


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