Powerful and poignant

War Horse is a theatrical experience worth travelling to see. The various phrases used in the marketing of this stage show – ‘mind blowing, not to be missed’, ‘unique and breathtaking’, ‘brilliant, bold and moving’–  are not mere hyperbole.  It is confronting, moving and brilliantly produced.

War Horse is based on the book of the same name by children’s writer, Michael Morpungo. The National Theatre stage adaption was first performed in London in 2007, opened in New York in 2011 and Toronto in 2012. It was recently made into a blockbuster film directed by Steven Spielberg.

Morpungo grew up in post-Second World War London, ‘a London of bombsites and ration books’. In an article by Morpungo reproduced in the program, he describes what pollinated the idea of War Horse:

“I conceived the notion I might write the story of the First World War as seen through a horse’s eye, a horse that would be reared on a Devon farm…a horse that is sold off the farm to go to the front as a British cavalry horse…It would be the horse’s eye view of the universal suffering of that dreadful war in which 10 million men died, and unknown millions of horses.”

A collaboration between the National Theatre of Great Britain and Global Creatures, War Horse successfully captures – through life size puppetry, creative staging incorporating folk music and powerful lighting and sound – the brutality of war while highlighting the strong bond between horse and owner.

The star of the production is Joey the horse. Joey is played by six different actors, three moving him joyously across the stage when he is a playful foal, and three playing his head, heart and hind when he is fully grown.

As the story progresses, the audience almost forgets that the horse is manipulated by human hand (and foot); his tail, ears, mane and legs all appear lifelike.

A challenge for the designer was moving the story from country England to war-torn France to enable the audience to genuinely inhabit the pace and scale of the unfolding drama.

Rae Smith, the National Theatre of Great Britain’s designer, sought a ‘poetic’ solution. The stage is framed by a large ripped page from a sketchbook. As the story progresses, pencil sketches made by one of the characters appear on this jagged page, providing a pictorial representation of the changing scenes.

War Horse does not glorify or present a nationalist view of war.

In one powerful scene, Joey is caught in barbed wire in no-man’s land. The Allies on one side and the Germans on the other agree to send in a soldier each to free the horse. A brief ceasefire is declared, the men free the animal, toss a coin to determine who should take the horse and Joey is safely removed from harm’s way.

The lighting and sound of the production help transport us across the Channel to the Western Front; to feel the fear, the boredom, the mud and the noise of war; to witness its impact in the forced dislocation of French farmers and in families grieving for sons and husbands killed in combat.

It is a powerful and memorable dramatic representation of war told through a universal character – a horse. Definitely worth the effort of coming to Melbourne.

War Horse, Melbourne Arts Centre until 10 March  2013

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