Two military horses, forged from cane, steel, leather and aircraft cables, charge about the stage bucking, kicking and whinnying in a duel for supremacy, each under the deft control of three puppeteers.
The uncanny spectacle is a pivotal scene from the internationally lauded theatre production War Horse, which made its Australian premiere in Melbourne this week.
The show follows young boy Albert's epic journey to find and bring home his beloved horse, Joey, who's been sold to the British cavalry at the outbreak of World War I and shipped to France.
Playwright Nick Stafford's adaption of Michael Morpurgo's novel comes to Australia saddled with critical accolades including two Laurence Olivier Awards and five Tony Awards, and box office sales of some $2.4 million in the US and UK since its 2007 debut.
Producer Chris Harper, from Britain's National Theatre, says Australians' deep connection to World War I history has been drawing them to the heart- wrenching drama, with early performances drawing standing ovations.
"I think I've even seen a few grown men cry," Harper says. "(War Horse) is very much about celebrating the Anzac spirit which runs through the DNA of all Australians. It's about courage, loyalty, friendship - all of those things that really matter in life."
It's hard to disagree. Promoters say War Horse has broken the record for the biggest advance sales of any show in the history of Melbourne's Arts Centre.
Harper says the show's Australian cast, led by 2010 WA Performing Arts Academy graduate James Bell and acting veteran and English expat Nicholas Bell, have been "just extraordinary" in nailing the spirit of the show, right down to their characters' accents.
With 18 puppets - including horses and birds, created by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company - at the centre of the production, Harper says puppeteers' exhaustive training saw them sent to stables to study how horses work and live before taking to the stage to work alongside actors.
"One of the essential parts . . . is our horses are taught how to breathe, and so that's what makes them really feel like they come alive night after night," he said.
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