Review: War Horse at the Arts Centre, Melbourne

AUST PROD WAR HORSE - Joey rearingI have a confession to make. When I was a tween, before I discovered fantasy and SF, I had a passion for horse stories. I loved animal stories in general, but the horse stories had me every single time.

My Friend Flicka, The Palamino Horse, Black Beauty, National Velvet, pretty much everything by Margeurite Henry, not to mention the Australian series, The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell and Mary Elwyn Patchett’s numerous series including The Brumby and Tam the Untamed. Some of my first fantasy books were reading about unicorns and winged horses, and of course The Horse and His Boy from the Narnia series.

Yep, I had it bad. If only my parents had given me an actual pony. It could totally have lived in my room with me.

Now I think about it, moving from horse stories to dragon stories, a la Pern, was a natural progression, and from there I moved on to all kinds of SF, fantasy, crime and horror. Nevertheless, I retain a soft spot for well told animal stories.

AUST PROD WAR HORSE - Joey & Albert close upEnter, stage left, War Horse. I saw the film (I must confess partly because the recent Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch, was in it and I wanted to see him in something else) and liked it well enough.

The prospect of a stage version, though, had me intrigued and excited. The puppetry and stagecraft of the stage version of The Lion King had impressed me and I wanted to see how those techniques would apply to concepts as large as life-sized horses and a whole world war on the stage.

I didn’t realise that War Horse originated as a book until after the show, but as I sat there watching the story unfold, I thought that it must have been from that genre. I recognised the traditional patterns of all of those books I’d read in my childhood. Particularly resonant was the typical tale of a young person (a boy, as is so often the case in these books, Albert in this case) and his intense, pure love for his horse (Joey). This pattern seemed at odds, though, with the much more violent, adult aspects of the story, with the horrors of war very clearly shown, including the deliberate shootings of both humans and animals.

It’s a juxtaposition that is a little jarring, and I think my 10-year-old self would have been deeply distressed by this production. Still, at 13 I might have loved it, though probably I’d have cried. Hell, I’m a full grown adult now and I still got very emotional, particularly at the fates of the animals.

The puppetry in War Horse is absolutely brilliant. The horse constructs are complex and move with surprising naturalism, from the distinctive gait of a colt to the heaving of a chest, post-gallop, and the flicking of an equine tail.

Each horse has three operators, and they don’t just move the limbs, head, tail and torso. They make sounds and are hugely physically expressive. They are literally and figuratively the animating spirit of the horses. When one of the animals dies and the puppeteers slowly withdraw, stand at attention and then, as one, leave the stage, I had tears in my eyes. I was watching the spirit leave that horse, and it was sad.

Anthropomorphism provokes a strong emotional response in me, and I found myself much more involved in the horses – and even the hilarious goose at the farm who likes to, well, goose everyone – than the human cast. In the first act I sometimes felt the puppet animals were more emotionally complex and realistic than some of the people.

AUST PROD WAR HORSE - Joey & Topthorn

The second half addresses this lack, with Albert suffering through so much in his search for Joey on the battlefields of France and losing his faith. He finally gains the emotional texture to lift the character out of the simple, broad strokes of archetype to a person as real as Joey the horse has become.

Oddly, having seen the film took some of the excitement out of the play for a while, as I thought I knew what was coming next. However, the stage show plot differs in some respects to the film, which was a boon when I suddenly realised in one section that I didn’t know what happened to these people. The suspense returned. I knew how the big picture would end, but not the lives of the other characters.

On the whole, War Horse is an excellent production. I haven’t spent any time here talking about the wonderful exeuction of the lighting, backdrop design, the battle sequences, the vocal soundscapes with the beautiful singing, the general sound design, and the costuming. It’s a handsome production, beautifully performed, even though the humans are less complex than they could be. The puppets of course are extraordinary, with their wonderful puppeteers, transcending their shapes of wood and wire, and that’s a bit of theatre magic totally worth the price of entry.

War Horse is on at the Arts Centre, Melbourne until 10 March 2013, tickets from $79.90 for B Reserve. See more at the Arts Centre site.

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  • Thoraiya

    Oh, thanks for this review, Narrelle, I loved it! Horsie books were my great love in years 3 and 4 at school, and I became much better at drawing horses than people. While I acquired enough cynicism as a vet to stop watching horsie movies, I was in tears at the Edinburgh war memorial for all the animals killed in both WWs, and I saw a news story on those puppets which made me wish I could hop into my tardis and pop down to Melbourne for the day to see the play πŸ™‚

    • The craft in the puppetry and their onstage animation is certainly extraordinary. Did you have a favourite author? I loved the Silver Brumby series, from the horses’ point of view, but I also adored the Patchett books, from the human perspective. I never realised till I was an adult that wild horses aren’t really good for native wildlife. πŸ™