What A Beauty
They say never work with children or animals. To which one might add, ‘even if the animals aren't real.’ In the National Theatre’s production of “War Horse,” based on the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford, and presented in association with Handspring Puppet Company, life-sized puppets infused with anthropomorphic presence risk their real-life, animal counterparts looking redundant. In a world where man and beast reside often to the beasts detriment, it's beasts who emerge with the greater humanity. Attacking many of the big themes of life and death, "War Horse” delivers a haunting and visually stunning spectacle you simply can’t take your eyes off for a moment.
Similar in tone and structure to Anna Sewell’s, 1877 classic novel Black Beauty, “War Horse” follows Joey, a spirited colt, as he journeys from his beloved English countryside through the horrors, and unexpected kindnesses, experienced at the hands of humans on the battlefields of France during the First World War. Torn from his master Albert’s side by Albert’s reprobate father, Joey is forced into cavalry charges, hauling First Aid ambulances and dragging gun carriages with his sturdy companion, the dark stallion Topthorn. Meanwhile, Albert enlists to try and find his faithful steed to take him home. But in a world of war made mad by men, where the enemy can show kindness and destiny can be decided on the toss a coin, their chances look about as good as the lame and the blind finding each other through the barbed wires of No Man’s Land.
Under directors Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris, “War Horse’s” rich canvas marries broad strokes and meticulous details, with the delight being in the details. Often painting with the broadest of strokes, Stafford’s script hits all the right, if often obvious cliched notes, bravely showcasing the disturbing next to the delightful. Being a story told best through all the senses, Stafford’s dialogue serves as verbal mortar between “War Horse’s” rich theatrically bricks, whose detailed visuals and audio prove stunning. Composer Adrian Sutton marries sweeping cinematic score with haunting folk tunes, few more haunting than the rousing war ditties sung by departing soldiers, insuring “War Horse” remains grounded in the earth as it soars to the sky. Complimented perfectly by Christopher Shutt’s explosive sound design which, along with Paule Constable’s superlative lighting, captures the terrors of the trenches and No Man’s Land. Harmonising opposites of scope and scale, designer Rae Smith, along with animation and projection design by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer for 59 Productions, captures both the salient, picture book details, while also disclosing the war wide world in all its guts and glory.
Audio issues aside, often resulting from hurried dialect and projection, a hard working cast diligently deliver split second timing in a complex and demanding production, often hitting the right emotional note at the right emotional moment. Aside from the bumpkin-like Albert, who often undermines his emotional impact for sounding permanently histrionic. Yet it’s the animals who truly shine emotionally and performatively, courtesy of Handspring Puppet Company. Toby Sedgwick’s choreography, along with direction by puppetry directors Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, see ghastly carrion, noble steeds, and one scene stealing obstreperous goose lighting up the physical and emotional spaces as a result of some world-class puppeteering.
First produced in 2007, “War Horse” makes the case for what theatre is uniquely capable of. Accepting the book is always better than the movie, “War Horse” also exceeds Steven Spielberg’s 2011 movie of the same name. On screen, Spielberg’s polished literalism robs the audience of the suggestive spaces left on stage that are intensified by the puppets. Spaces that still have emotional and imaginative play left in them which allow you to project, to go beyond the generic and predictable, and add your own depth and texture. Going far beyond what an easy realism can achieve while ensuring you feel the strain of every muscle and emotion. See only the skin you risk losing sight of the soul. “War Horse” strips away its realist skin to reveal its theatrical soul, which is where its heart beats loudest. And it is a heartbreaking joy to behold. In the end, all that matters is what you’ve done. What the National Theatre have done with “War Horse” is create a stunning piece of theatre. Not a bad days work, making the near perfect night out.
War Horse,” produced by the National Theatre, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford, and presented in association with Handspring Puppet Company, runs at The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until April 27th
For more information, visit Bord Gáis Energy Theatre