An epic and intense tale of bravery in the lead up to and during the First World War, War Horse focuses on the trials and tribulations of a chestnut animal named Joey and on those who come into contact with him.
When it was first performed on stage, in London in October 2007, War Horse rewrote the rule book on what was possible in puppetry. It wowed me when it was last in Melbourne in 2012/13 and it has done so again. Put simply, this is a remarkable, must see production of the highest order – a triumph of conception and execution, in which highly skilled puppeteers inhabit inanimate objects (effectively shells) and make them come to life before our very eyes.
The landmark National Theatre of Great Britain production of War Horse is based upon a novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford. It features a cast of 34 and more than 20 puppets, many life size, created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. It has played in 98 cities across 12 countries, won more than 25 international awards – including five Tony Awards and two Olivier Awards – and been seen by in excess of eight million people. Steven Spielberg also directed a film adaptation of the story. That was released in 2011 and was nominated for six Oscars.
Let me turn back to this Australian stage production. You care so deeply about what happens, especially to Joey, and that has everything to do with the drama and pathos invested in the storyline and its realisation. The concentration on the steed never shifts, although the horse – at various junctures – is under the charge of a farm boy (Albert) who trains him, representatives of the British and German armies, and a disabled French girl. The cruelty of man and the tragedy of war remain mainstays, although ultimately War Horse is a heroic tale of triumph against overwhelming odds. Throughout the heaviness, there are also pockets of humour to lift the mood momentarily.
Having seen and appreciated War Horse before, I had the good fortune to sit next to a couple of young men who were seeing it for the first time and their reactions were invaluable. They road every bump, just like I had done, as Joey is transposed into spirited flesh and bone whose life had to be preserved at all costs. Many times the vicissitudes of the times threatened to bring him a cropper and yet through smarts, gut strength and sheer determination he found a way. In the meantime, many men and – it must be said – horses fell by the wayside in a bloody war of attrition.
The puppetry isn’t restricted to the horses, with a feisty goose and birds also in the limelight at various junctures. Although most of the production naturally takes place on stage, a few scenes feature actors cowering immediately in front of that platform.
The narrative is undoubtedly aided by the soundscape – consisting of naturalistic sound effects and a few choice musical numbers – lighting and projection design. The latter is brilliantly realised in black and white – in all but one scene – on a large elongated cloud positioned above, and stretching almost the length of, the stage. It unquestionably adds to our understanding of what is going down and when.
I can’t recommend War Horse more highly. It is a harrowing but ultimately uplifting story, once seen never forgotten, playing at the newly refurbished Regent Theatre in Melbourne until 8th February. Thereafter, it moves to Sydney’s Lyric Theatre from 15th February until 15th March, before the Australian tour finishes in Perth at the Crown Theatre, where it will play between 24th March and 12th April, 2020.
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.