War Horse, from London’s National Theatre, has left a hum of buzz from London to Broadway to across the US on tour, and now that it’s arrived in Australia it’s easy to see why – it’s an injection of theatre magic.
A simple story from a children’s book (and more recently, a big splash of a movie), the simple, heartwarming tale is not complex but has a dogged, determined, loving heart. Albert (Cody Fern) is tasked with looking after the somewhat ill-advisedly purchased hunter Joey, and the two form a strong bond that persists upon the breakout of the first World War. He and Joey are separated, and each must endure wartime and active service if they are to have any hope of finding each other again.
It’s from this strong and straightforward foundation that a symphony of stagecraft erupts, and it’s for the best that we are not distracted by the machinations of overtly complex plot; the play is more concerned with telling a linear story of sentiment well, and telling it differently – notably with the use of extraordinary puppets.
And they are spectacular. When the full-grown Joey is revealed it’s almost breathtaking; Shakespeare might have entreated that when, in Henry V, people talk of horses we should imagine them, but here having them larger than life and vivid with personality, imagination seems like less a strong option than it ever did. The actors manning the horses (Joey on opening night was brought to life by a variety of talented, patient performers) move with a grace and gait that feels entirely natural; the acting of the creatures is remarkable. When the horses start running into some trouble in the second act it’s as heart-rending as if it were happening to people. Great credit is due to Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones for their work in puppet design and direction.
[pull_left]It’s about innovative theatre-making and expression, it’s about stories that aren’t afraid to have a heart, and it’s about remembering that the theatre still has new and exciting techniques to offer if we just provide the time, space, and funding for this to happen[/pull_left]
The sound design and its mixing is crystal-clear and the incidental sound helps to create a sense of place, cementing this play as an experience; it’s alive on a sensory level. The music and songs (thanks to Adrian Sutton and songmaker John Tams – performed by John Thompson as the Song Man, and Dave Evans doing the instrumental work) sets the pace and tone of the scenes, and it’s nice to see a play that uses live songs to create mood; Sydney theatre-goers will remember the effect of such in STC’s recent Secret River. The lighting (by Paule Constable) works in tandem with this, and it plays beautifully off Rae Smith’s set, punctuated by drawings and projections to suggest time, place, and mood.
Gripping and high-stakes while being comfortably familiar (there is something soothing about an old story, particularly one aimed at a younger and more hopeful audience), there is nothing cynical about this production.
It’s about innovative theatre-making and expression, it’s about stories that aren’t afraid to have a heart, and it’s about, truly, remembering that the theatre still has new and exciting techniques to offer if we just provide the time, space, and funding for this to happen.
It’s important that War Horse can travel internationally to inspire creatives and audiences alike; it’s encouraging to know that with the right initiatives, such as the National Theatre’s for new and experimenting artists, greatness awaits. Australia has just as much, if not more, to offer, and when our time comes for new, large-scale, out of the box creation, the precedent of War Horse will serve us well.