Gallop to War Horse

Joey the horse is clearly three people in a horse suit and his story is emotionally manipulative, a bit schmaltzy and narratively safe, but I wasn’t the only person crying for that horse on New Year’s Eve. If the passionate standing ovation from opening night is a hint of the love for this show, gallop to get your tickets for War Horse.

War Horse - Photographer David Wyatt
War Horse Melbourne. Photo by David Wyatt

I read horse books as a pre-teen. I loved a ponymance tale of a lass and her beast with a tail. As I got older, I liked the ones where there pony was dumped for a sullen boy and cried my eyes out in K M Peyton’s Flambards series.

If I’d read War Horse at the time, there would have been more tears. British author Michael Morpurgo is best known for his stories for children and he’s written over 120 books. His War Horse (1982) has always been popular, but the stage production by the National Theatre of Great Britain (2007–)  and Steven Speilberg’s film (2011) have assured that it’s now sold over a million copies.

[pull_left]Everyone’s input can be seen and felt in a show that’s close to perfect and guarantees an unforgettable night at the theatre[/pull_left]

Morpurgo wanted to write a story for children about the First World War that wasn’t told from any side, so he told it from the first person perspective of Joey the horse. The stage version takes away the anthropomorphic narrative voice, but keeps him as the heart of the story. In 1912, Joey the foal’s bought at auction in the hope that he’ll return the investment as an adult. Teenage Albert trains and bonds with Joey, but their happy-ever-after is cut short when Albert’s dad sells Joey to the army for a life-changing £100. Joey goes to France as an officer’s mount, but even an officer can’t avoid mud, machine guns and barbed wire. Meanwhile Albert lies about his age and is also sent to France.

War Horse was first seen on stage in 2007. It’s won Olivier and Tony awards for its London and Broadway productions and there’s little any new review can add to the its endless critical praise.  It’s a production than blends the commercial push for spectacle and need for a 2000-seat room without forsaking the art and love that created it.

There are far too many creative names to list from the original to the Australian creators and cast, but everyone’s input can be seen and felt in a show that’s close to perfect and almost guarantees an unforgettable night at the theatre.

The life-size-plus puppetry is exquisite with animal puppets that celebrate the beauty of the critters and the technique that created the puppet. The detail and realism from twitchy ears to shaky foal legs and swishing tails is so connected to its operator that it’s impossible to separate puppet from operator. Joey and Topthorn, his war-bff, each have three operators (head, heart and hind) whose horse acting and puppetry bring such want-to-pat-them-and-give-them-a-carrot life to their animals that no one got a greater cheer at the end of the night – apart from a scene-stealing goose.

War Horse - Photographer David Wyatt-2868
War Horse Melbourne. Photo by David Wyatt

And it’s beautiful to look at. Its sepia and brown design uses a projection of hand drawn sketches and creates a world where war took away hope of any colour except poppy red, and it has just enough realism to let imagination fill in as much as each person watching dares. This may be why people tear-up at different times. My tears weren’t about the story, they were because I imagined too much for a moment when there was barbed wire.

War Horse is stunning. The story isn’t as tight as some may want, but it’s a story written so everyone can enjoy it, and enjoy its heartbreak without being traumatised and still want to re-visit it by reading the book and calling the next pet in your home Joey.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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