Great war horse expectations
Expectation is everything; especially in the theatre.
Getting an audience to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours and to be drawn into the moment is down to any number of factors including the script, theatrical devices, stage set, lighting, direction, and, of course, the ability of the performers to deliver on the pluralistic hopes of the consumers.
So I was intrigued as I made my way to the Bristol Hippodrome to watch the opening performance of Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book War Horse.
What possibility was there, I wondered, that I could be emotionally drawn into a First World War drama about a horse which, after all, is made from wood, gauze and leather and activated by a team of balletic puppeteers?
The story is fairly well known and although you may not have read the book or seen the stage play chances are you caught Steven Spielberg’s 2011 film.
It tells the tale of a farm horse, Joey, who is sold to a yeomanry cavalry division, shipped off to France during the First World War, serves first on the British and then, after being captured, on the German sides before ending up wounded and wandering in no-man’s land.
Joey is then pursued by his young master Albert, who, although underage, enlists with the sole purpose of finding his beloved horse amidst the carnage of the trenches.
Suspending disbelief! Well for me it took moments only.
The horses, as everyone knows, are brilliant.
The real genius of this stage version lies in the work of the South African based Handspring Puppet Company's Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler.
They have created, out of skeletal bamboo frames and internal hinges, the most plausible and expressive quadrupeds ever to have cantered across stage. As far as my imagination was concerned the puppeteers were an integral part of the animals – they breathed life into them and captured the very essence of those head-tossing, ear pricking, neck- stretching, magnificent beasts.
From the first moment of watching the fearful panting of the young foal Joey to the wide-nostrilled horror of a charging battle-horse leaping over and entangling the barbed wire of the Flanders killing fields, this life-sized equestrian symbol was as real to me as the real thing.
As a visual backdrop to the action a 25 metre projection screen drawn across the stage became a landscape, a floating cloud, a horizon or a battlefield. Designed by Rae Smith this ocular language drew heavily on the work of Edweard Muybridge, an English photographer important for his pioneering work in photographic studies of horses in motion; Italian Futurist artists such as Filippo Marinetti and Umberto Bocciano; the short lived Vorticist art movement led by Wyndham Lewis and English First World artists Christopher Nevinson and Paul Nash.
A real treat for the in-the-know art lover.
All the memorable moments of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris's two and a half hour production are the product of the superlative puppetry; the visual, at times fearful, backdrop; the haunting music score composed by Adrian Sutton and the brilliant lighting by Paul Constable.
Which all becomes a bit of a problem for the dozens of actors who worked their socks off to unfold this particular narrative.
Mere humans such as Thomas Dennis’ Albert, Peter Becker’s sympathetic German and song man Bob Fox are simply overwhelmed and upstaged by the massive technical ingenuity on display.
There are, of course, many touching and dramatic moments especially the early bonding between Albert and Joey and the comradeship in arms under fire. The rural mood of the second decade of the 20th century is also nicely captured, in a post-Thomas Hardy sort of way, both in costume and spirit.
There are some humorous moments throughout the performance although not altogether successful and some probably unintentional.
Shell shocked soldiers retreating from the battle front put one in mind of Zombies from the film Shaun of the Dead while the battlefront sergeant major apparently came straight from the Windsor Davies School of Acting as memorably portrayed in the 1970s TV sitcom It ‘Aint Half Hot Mum!
The goose on wheels added a welcome light touch; the high flying birds on poles added nothing at all; while the ensemble choral work was evocative and inspirational.
Inevitably the story is a commentary on the futility of war. In the centenary year of the Battle of the Somme we are reminded both visually and explosively about the horror of the trenches, the senseless loss of life and, of course, the often overlooked killing and maiming of more than 130,000 horses by gunfire, poison gas and aeroplane bombs.
So whatever doubts I had about this show were quickly dispelled.
It was an emotional rollercoaster of an evening, powerful, imaginative, heart-warming and heart-breaking.
The standing ovation at the end of the show was thoroughly deserved.
As a theatrical event, War Horse is uniquely memorable.
In runs until Saturday, November 11.
To book tickets click HERE.
War Horse returns to mark WW1 centenary
PREVIEW: The National Theatre production of War Horse makes a return visit to the Bristol Hippodrome in October this year.
Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s remarkable story of courage, loyalty and friendship, about a young boy called Albert and his horse Joey, set against the backdrop of the First World War is the most successful play in the National Theatre’s history.
It features ground-breaking puppetry work by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, which brings breathing, galloping horses to live on stage.
Rehearsals began this week for the 34-strong cast of a major 15-city UK tour of this internationally acclaimed production.
Thomas Dennis, fresh from playing Christopher Boone in the National Theatre’s West End production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will play the central role of Albert Narracott with fellow Curious cast member Jo Castleton as his mother Rose Narracott.
Celebrated folk musician, Bob Fox, returns as Song Man.
They are joined by: Marcus Adolphy (Carter), Adam Barlow(Greig/Schweyk/Sergeant Fine), Peter Becker (Friedrich), Joelle Brabban (Emilie), Lucas Button (Joey Hind), Jasper William Cartwright (Billy/Heine/Klebb), Chris Charles (Joey/Topthorn Heart), Jonathan Charles (Bone/Vet Martin), Sebastian Charles (Topthorn Heart), Anna Chessher (Joey/Topthorn Head), Nicky Cross (Joey/Topthorn Hind), Max Gallagher (Geordie), Chris Garner (Allan/Manfred), Andrew Hodges (Sergeant Thunder), Lewis Howard (Joey Heart), William Ilkley (Arthur Narracott), Ben Ingles (Lt Nicholls), Billy Irving (Goose/Schnabel), Elan James (Topthorn Hind), Kiran Landa (Annie Gilbert), Gwilym Lloyd (Ted Narracott), Jack Lord (Klausen), Stephen Love (Topthorn Head), Toyin Omari-Kinch (David), Samuel Parker (Joey/Topthorn Hind), Tom Quinn (Joey/Topthorn Head), Domonic Ramsden(Joey/Topthorn Heart), Arinder Sadhra (Paulette), Tom Stacy (Joey Head), Elizabeth Stretton (Matron Callaghan), Simon Victor (Stewart/Heine/Ludwig).
War Horse is rehearsing in London in a 470 square meter rehearsal space, custom built by MDM Props, to accommodate the large company.
More than seven million people worldwide have seen War Horse which has won 25 awards including the Tony Award for Best Play on Broadway.
It is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris,
Michael Morpurgo said: ‘After a few months rest, out at pasture, Joey, the War Horse and his great team from the National Theatre, will be touring the UK again, from 2017 through to 2019 and the centenary of the end of the First World War, taking their show all over the country, to towns and cities, many of them places War Horse has not been seen before.
"I am so pleased this is happening; that so many more people will have the chance to enjoy this unique theatrical event."
The set is designed by Rae Smith, with puppet direction, design and fabrication by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler for Handspring Puppet Company, lighting by Paule Constable, and movement and horse choreography by Toby Sedgwick, with video design by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer for 59 Productions, songmaker John Tams, music by Adrian Sutton and sound by Christopher Shutt.
Katie Henry is the revival director and Craig Leo is the associate puppetry director.
They are joined by resident puppetry director, Matthew Forbes and resident director, Charlotte Peters.
It plays the Bristol Hippodrome from Wednesday to Saturday, October 18-November 11.
PHOTO: Ellie Kurttz