Puppetry Director Gareth Aled Teaches Us About The 'Living' Puppets In 'War Horse'

13 December 2019 | 5:08 pm | Mary Varvaris

With equine epic 'War Horse' returning to Australia in January, Resident Puppetry Director Gareth Aled talks about the power of universal stories and creating the show's larger-than-life stars with Mary Varvaris.

The extraordinary stage production of War Horse, based on Michael Morpurgo’s classic novel of the same name, is making its return to Australia in 2020.

Featuring life-sized puppets made of cane, mesh, leather, aluminium and steel, the play debuted on 17 October 2007 at the National Theatre in London. In 2010, it was dubbed the “theatrical event of the decade” by The Times. The show hit Broadway in 2011, winning five Tonys at that year’s awards show, including Best Play. 

When the show's return to Australia was announced, Morpurgo has said: “Stories know no barriers. Distance does not matter. History does matter. This is a story of us, of all of us.”

The story of War Horse is especially unique, as it’s told from the perspective of Joey, the beloved farm horse of 13-year-old Albert. During the turmoil of WWI, Joey is sold to the army by Albert’s father and shipped to the front. Caught up in the horrors of war, Joey is beset by gunfire, tanks, bombs and death while Albert tries desperately to find him.

“When a puppet enters a space, before any story is told, you have to be convinced that it’s living.

Resident Puppetry Director Gareth Aled has a pretty huge challenge in front of him, bringing Joey and the other war horses to the stage as living, breathing, feeling creatures. 

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“When a puppet enters a space, before any story is told, you have to be convinced that it’s living. This task requires the puppeteer to work really hard technically and physically. If they do their job correctly, you will forget that they exist and will believe in the individual character.” 

Aled first saw War Horse as a young drama school graduate in 2010. “That evening at the theatre had a huge impact,” says Aled. “The effort, generosity and heart I felt from the company telling the story was moving and inspiring.” 

Since joining the War Horse team in 2013, Aled has aimed to capture this generosity and heart of the production, which initially sparked his love for physical ensemble storytelling. His title incorporates many roles, including working through the audition process, rehearsals and technical rehearsals, as well as the performances themselves. 

It takes three puppeteers to operate Joey, one each to manipulate Joey’s ‘head’, ‘heart’ and ‘hind'.

“Technically, the head puppeteer maintains the head height and eyeline of the horse," explains Aled. "Emotionally, they operate the ears via bicycle brake levers. If the ears pin back, it suggests fear, discomfort or agitation. If they soften forward and the head lowers, it could convey curiosity, passiveness or relaxation.” 

The heart puppeteer controls the knee joints and curls the hoofs via triggers. When the puppeteer bends their knees, the horse breathes, providing the puppets with another important emotional indicator. 

Lastly, the hind puppeteer maintains the stride of the horse. Joey and the other horses participate in cavalry charges, thus they’re required to walk, trot and gallop. The hind puppeteer also uses bicycle brake levers to operate the tail. 


War Horse @ The Gillian Lynne Theatre. Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg.

“These three puppeteers coordinate and communicate through a shared breath," says Aled. "[It’s] an incredible act of trust and teamwork.

“Convincing the audience of the muscle, weight and power of the horses is a constant challenge… [I’m] constantly striving to develop the puppetry while at the same time maintaining the vision and ethos of the creative team.” 

The numerous responsibilities of the job provide daily challenges for Aled, but the rewards, such as inspiring the next generation of young theatre-makers and performers, are amazing.

Aled promises an event that can only be experienced live, as “the true magic of this production cannot be fully expressed in an interview or via still paragraphs and video, it can only serve to encourage you to sit down in an auditorium and watch the story unfold”. 

"These ideas translate to all people, all over the world. I think this is partly why the play is so impactful."

Today, War Horse continues to resonate with millions of people around the world. Aled believes that “the universality of suffering and the futility of war” and “themes of community, love, loss, and loyalty” are the reason why the story continues to rein in theatre audiences and book readers. 

“The animal doesn’t engage with politics nor does it understand human language like English, French or German – it responds to tone, intonation, kindness and vulnerability. These ideas translate to all people, all over the world. I think this is partly why the play is so impactful.

“This play never ceases to move, surprise and inspire me.” 

Tickets to War Horse are available HERE.

War Horse plays from 10 Jan at Regent Theatre, Melbourne, from 15 Feb at Lyric Theatre, Sydney, and from 24 Mar at Crown Theatre, Perth.