Puppet magic beneath War Horse at Theatre Royal
PITY Craig Leo's starring role in the theatre event of the decade – the better he gets, the more he goes unnoticed.
He is charged with helping bring Joey, the equine hero of War Horse, to life in Plymouth.
The stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel of the same name owes much of its global success to the work of Craig and fellow Handspring puppeteers.
The Devon author has led the applause for Craig and co, admitting he initially thought using life-size puppets would be absurd but that he was struck by the "magic" when he saw them in action.
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"It's a combination of the technical aspect and the performance of the team," says Craig, who operates Joey's head as one of three working on the horse.
"It's about the manipulation of an object and the audience's perception of that object, an incredible bringing together of various disciplines, working together to make an animal breathe into being on a stage."
Puppets, Craig argues, can actually be more effective than actors on stage.
"A puppet's desire is to live and keep living," he says, turning philosophical.
"The most difficult thing for an actor to do on stage is to die, because they are so obviously alive.
"With a puppet you engage the audience more. With Joey, three people are investing all their imagination to bring a horse to life – helped by the lighting and the sound – and when the audience invests in that too, when they believe, it is something special, something so powerful."
Handspring gained a worldwide profile through their work on the National Theatre adaptation of the story of a Devon farm horse who is "enlisted" in World War I.
But the South African company already had an unrivalled reputation for imagination, innovation and technical mastery within the theatre world before that collaboration began in 2007.
That was built on shows such as Tall Horse, a show about a giraffe, the first Handspring project in which Craig was involved.
The 43-year-old from Cape Town had worked in circus and in puppetry and the company needed somebody with experience of both. He had to walk on stilts while operating the giant stage creature.
"War Horse is the most technically difficult show I have worked on, though," says Craig. "Physically it is the most challenging.
"The horses are life-size and even though they use light materials (cane, aluminium and hides, plus steel cables) they are quite heavy and they are very technically difficult to operate.
"They have to be powerful at times and they have to gallop, but they must also appear sensitive – the ears are so important in that. They move just like a real horse's ears."
Each set of hand-crafted animals for a War Horse production takes about a year to make and although the puppets are robust, two technicians are back stage constantly in case running repairs are needed.
That hand-made, hand-operated touch also brings a sense of period to the production, says Craig.
"It was an age of levers, pulleys and cables. I think being able to see the 'skeleton' at times is part of the magic as well.
"The audience can see the gaps and fill that space with their imagination."
The sold-out run of War Horse continues at The Lyric, the Theatre Royal Plymouth's main stage, from until Saturday, October 12.
Michael Morpurgo will read an abridged version in War Horse: Only Remembered in The Lyric on October 13.
Read our theatre critic Roger Malone's review of War Horse in next week's What's On.