I love an Opening Night. It's such a thrilling event full of high stakes for theatremakers, and a wonderful buzz of expectation in the audience. War Horse opened on New Year’s Eve, thus adding a whole other layer of anticipation in the full to the brim State Theatre.
Despite the thrill of a well deserved standing ovation, the mood post show was fairly sombre. The restrooms became a place for many of us to try and reapply our mascara in peace, except for the occasion sob or sniffle.
It was clear that War Horse made quite an impact, and rightly so: War Horse is absolutely glorious. A well crafted, multi-disciplinary spectacle of storytelling that succeeds in all areas: design, narrative, casting, direction...the list goes on.
War Horse’s core story is reasonably simple. A foal is auctioned off to Devon farmer Ted, who uses the auction to antagonise his brother Arthur, who intended to buy the foal for his son, Billy.
Ted’s son Albert raises the foal, who he calls Joey, and they form an incredibly close bond against adversity. When World War I commences, Ted goes against his word by selling Joey to the Army for use by Lieutenant James Nicholls, who promises to care for him.
When Albert discovers that Nicholls has been killed, he lies about his age and enlists so that he can find Joey and bring him home.
Novelist Michael Morpurgo’s background in children’s fiction is evident here. The simple story of the bond between a man and his horse is accessible to all audiences. We see the horrors of World War I through Joey’s eyes and it is heart wrenching.
The storytelling is free of bias, as Joey encounters kindness from both sides – first through Lieutenant James Nicholls' care, and then German Captain Friedrich Muller, whose guidance keeps Joey safe. At one point, a soldier from either side exits the trench in a bid to assist Joey. The poignancy of this scene alone beautifully captures the essence of this story.
Stagecraft is used seamlessly in this production, chiefly through puppetry. Performers manipulate a range of horses, birds and a scene stealing goose! When consulting the programme, I noticed that many of the performers are primarily actors. It is no surprise when you witness the wonderful emotional development on show here.
The larger horses are manipulated by three performers controlling the head, heart and hind. Joey (John Shearman, Drew Wilson and Kiera Lyons) conveys a gamut of emotion simply through gesture and minimal (but at times heartwrenching) vocals.
Topthorn, another military horse who begins as a challenger to Joey, but emerges as a comrade delivered by performers Michael Wahr, Michael Cullen and Lincoln Hall. Inevitably, horses perish as part of the bloodshed, and these moments where the performers step away from their horse is affecting. Movement and Horse Choreography (Toby Sedwick, resident Alice Osborne) works at its best here, using ‘fallen’ performers in interesting ways.
Lighting (Paule Costable/Karen Spahn) and Sound (Christopher Shutt/John Owens) are immersive and particularly confronting during battle.
John Tams’ narrative songs (performed by Song men John Thompson and Dale Evans) bring the show into the epic genre, providing commentary and reflection. Rae Smith’s sets, costumes and drawings are inspired. Lieutenant John Nicholl’s sketchbook is realised as a banner above the action reflecting the various landscapes encountered through sketches and artworks.
We see the contrast between the fluidity of a horse’s movement and the sharpness of war.
It is wonderful to see such a large cast on stage. It is truly an ensemble show: actor, puppeteer and puppet fluidly combine. Aside from the standout puppetry performers, Andrew Tighe delivers a brilliantly crafted performance as German Captain Friedrich Muller. Newcomer Cody Fern is engaging as Albert, as is Andre De Vanny as Private David Taylor.
War Horse indicates that theatre is still evolving. This combination of simple storytelling, sketches and the ancient art forms of narrative songs and puppetry beautifully combine to create a new genre.
Well done to The Arts Centre Melbourne, Global Creatures and Victorian Major Events on bringing this show to Melbourne. This production by the National Theatre of Great Britain completely lives up to the hype.