It began with a hyena.
The puppet of a hyena in a 1994 production called Faustus in Africa is what drew the attention of London's National Theatre to the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa.
"It was that hyena that started the National looking for something that would be a good vehicle for us and eventually they came up with War Horse," said Basil Jones, the partner in Handspring, as well as in life, with Adrian Kohler, speaking one evening this month from their home outside Cape Town.
Handspring's designs of horse puppets define the National's hit production of War Horse, which went from London to Broadway and now is on tour and opens Tuesday in Tampa. It was adapted for the stage by playwright Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo's novel for young adults.
In his book, Morpurgo tells the story from the point of view of Joey, a horse whose remarkable odyssey takes him from rural Devon in southwest England to the bloody trenches of World War I, and his relationship with the boy who trained him.
"What replaces the horse telling the story is these puppets on stage," Morpurgo said from his Devon farm. "They're life size, sculptural but skeletal. The extraordinary magic is that these creatures move so well that you suspend belief. Your heart goes out to them."
The horses, made from an aluminum frame, cane, fabric, paper and wire, are operated by three puppeteers. At first, Jones and Kohler hoped to have just two inside the horse, but that didn't allow for manipulation of the head.
"So we made the decision to have the head manipulator standing outside the horse and using a pole through which there are bicycle cables to manipulate the head and ears of the horse," Jones said. "We were kind of worried that would spoil the whole look but we found that if you manipulated the horse really finely the outside manipulators, and the manipulators in general, just disappeared. That's an imaginative feat that the audience does. It's part of the magic of the play."
Many theatergoers first came across puppets in a big way in Julie Taymor's staging of The Lion King, which debuted on Broadway in 1997 and continues to play there. "We knew her from before Lion King as a really innovative and excellent puppet designer," Jones said. "She was the first to take puppets into the center of contemporary theater."
Much inspiration for puppetry comes from African ritual and religion. It's those primal sources that may explain the life-changing impact puppets can have in a theatrical context. For Jones and Kohler, it was the Bamana puppets of Mali in West Africa that inspired them to found Handspring in 1981.
"I think it's a very deep and ancient belief in the life of objects, which comes out of animism," Jones said. "When people left Africa to move into the rest of the world, their religion was animism. I think animism is almost imprinted in our DNA. When we go into a theater and we see objects come to life, I think we find that incredibly thrilling and fulfilling. It speaks to a deep belief in the life of things and in resurrection. As human beings we hate the idea that things die forever, and we love the idea that things can be resurrected. I think puppetry is an act of resurrection and therein lies its charm and magnetism.
Jones and Kohler like to say that the puppet's work is to live, and a key to their designs (mainly by Kohler) is the sensation of breathing. "All our puppets breathe," Jones said. "If the puppet stops breathing it stops living and the audience stops believing in it. We give life to objects, and that resurrection of the object is the essential magic of all puppetry."
War Horse was essentially an antiwar novel, driven by Morpurgo's horror at the death toll of the first world war. "Almost a million horses with the British forces were killed during war — about the same amount as the men who were lost," he said. "Across the whole spectrum of countries who fought in the war, the cost in lives was about 10 million men and roughly the same in horses. Many of those horses came from American farms because we ran out of them."
Part of the power of the stage work is its placement at a turning point in the historical relationship between people and horses. It is a glimpse at a world lost forever.
"This play signifies a moment in history where we separated from horses," Jones said. "Up until the first world war horses were entirely part of our lives, in our farming lives and also our transport lives. They were our main means of transport and had been for 10,000 years. So many horses died that after the war people were forced into using machines in farming and transport. It's a really important moment. It was the end of an era. There's a great nostalgia for the relationship that we had once with horses and the play speaks to that moment in the past."
Steven Spielberg was so impressed by War Horse, which he saw in London, that he made a 2011 movie (with real horses) from Morpurgo's novel. The screenplay was by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral). Did the movie hurt or help the play?
"Well, the cheeky answer to that is that the Spielberg production was a very expensive advert for the War Horse brand and has done us a lot of good," Jones said. "Some people say it wasn't great for the Lincoln Center (Broadway) production. Who knows? It was a great honor that he was inspired to do War Horse having seen the play. The goose, which Adrian invented for the play, became part of the film."
Morpurgo seems to favor the stage treatment over the movie. "Spielberg keeps closer to the story, but in terms of intensity and emotional engagement the play wins out hugely," he said. "And it's live. There it is, going on in front of your eyes, you can smell it, you can see it move. The film is a detached thing."
When War Horse was published in 1982, it was not a bestseller. Now, with the movie and stage shows around the world, the author has hit the jackpot. At 69, he wishes such success had come when he was younger and had more energy to enjoy it, but better late than never.
"At the time when my grandchildren need money for their education, it's there," Morpurgo said. "That's been lovely. You can take a deep breath and not worry about money anymore."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.