I seldom watch breakfast TV but I was staying in a hotel on Wednesday night, so yesterday morning I did. One of the guests was the former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo. The stage production of his story War Horse is about to go to Broadway, while Steven Spielbeg has also just finished filming it.
Animals have always been a challenge in the theatre. I remember going to see the original version of Equus at the Old Vic in the early ‘70s. Then they used large wicker horses’ heads worn by brown-clad actors. It worked. Equus was a profoundly disturbing theatrical experience.
Things have moved on. As we saw yesterday in a live studio demonstration, the horses in War Horse are whole, life-sized animals. The bodies and heads are wire armatures covered in gauze, the legs hinged sections of wood. Each horse has three attendant grooms in brown boots, breeches and waistcoat, who are really the puppeteers. They stand beside the animal as if tending to it and reach up, down or inside to manipulate the different parts of it with their hands.
So lifelike are the animal’s movements, so distinct its personality, that even in the brief couple of minutes the demonstration lasted I quickly forgot about the puppeteers. It was as if they had become transparent. It was a stunning example of how easily we can be persuaded to see only what someone wants us to see.
The three actor-puppeteers, we were told, were known respectively as Head, Heart and Hind; and this, I think, is the reason that this trompe l’oeil worked so beautifully. Working together, each immersed in his or her role, they conjured a living, breathing, feeling animal so real we could almost see its breath.
Head, heart and hind. I couldn’t help thinking that it’s sometimes helpful to think of organisations in anthropomorphic terms too. It reminds us that as well as a head, most organisations also have a heart, although they don’t always know where to find it. And they certainly have a hind. It’s what a lot of them spend an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to cover. But the main problem is that unlike in War Horse, their puppeteers so seldom seem to be working from the same script.