Culture Street

By Sophia Whitfield

27-year-old Ben McIvor graduated from the Actors Centre in Surry Hills in 2011. Unlike most graduating actors he has not had to wait tables or serve drinks, he has been fully occupied realising his dream as an actor. His credits include Devil’s Dust (ABC) , Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and War Horse which has been playing in Melbourne since New Year’s Eve, moving to Sydney next week.

Initially apprehensive about auditioning for War Horse, an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel by the same name, McIvor went along to the audition after a call from his agent. He had not heard of the show and had no experience as a puppeteer.

War Horse tells the heart wrenching story of Joey, the beloved horse of a boy called Albert, who is sold to the cavalry at the outbreak of World War I and shipped to France. He’s soon caught up in enemy fire, and fate takes him on an extraordinary odyssey. But Albert cannot forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist, he embarks on a treacherous mission to find him and bring him home.

At the heart of this show are life size puppets made out of steel, leather and aircraft cables that bring the animals to life particularly the two horses, Joey and Topthorn. According to McIvor South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company has “changed the game” for puppetry worldwide. The imagery that these life sized puppets bring to the stage is spectacular. Each horse has three actors managing the puppetry, the head, the heart and the hind. McIvor plays the hind.

Finn Caldwell, Associate Puppet director of the London West End and Australian production, took McIvor through the initial auditions during which they worked with paper and sticks as an introduction to puppetry.  It wasn’t until McIvor was inside the horse, they had one for the audition, that he realised the production was something quite special.

There are four teams that work with the horses, two specialist teams that only work with one horse and two rotating teams that work with both Joey and Topthorn. McIvor works on the rotating teams so he gets to be both horses at different times. Working as a team is paramount, McIvor says they get to know each other well both on stage and also tend to hang out together after performances. This works well and is integral to the way the team functions. “You have to move a tail or a foot with two other people completely in tune. There is nothing like it.”

McIvor admits that the physicality of the role has meant his fitness levels have improved significantly since first taking on the role in October last year. He goes to the gym when he can to give him the stamina required for the performances.

It is an interesting role as an actor as it is unseen. McIvor laughs it off, admitting that an actor’s world can be “all about you”, but in this case “all that ego and energy as an actor is used to portray Joey”. His favourite part of the show is perhaps the most physical when Albert is riding Joey and the horse is bolting. McIvor describes it as a “beautiful animal letting loose.”

In the end what drew McIvor to this rare spectacular was its point of difference.  As McIvor says, “There is nothing like it”.

War Horse opens in Sydney at the Sydney Lyric Theatre on Thursday March 21.

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