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War Horse

in association with HANDSPRING PUPPET COMPANY presents WAR HORSE based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo. Adapted by Nick Stafford. At the New London Theatre, Drury Lane, London.

WAR HORSE was first presented at the National Theatre, Southbank, in the Olivier Theatre in October in 2007. Revived in September 2008.Opened at the New London Theatre in March 2009. When I was purchasing my tickets for the performance I saw in January, 2010, the man in front of me was purchasing a “family” booking for September, 2010!!!!! This Production has what those in the business call “legs”. I will now tell you why.

HANDSPRING PUPPET COMPANY are a South African based company founded in 1981,”by four graduates of the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town. Two of the co-founders, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, continue to run the company.” They created shows for children and toured South Africa collaborating with Theatre directors and other Artists (eg: Barney Simon, co-founder of the Market Theatre, Johannesburg (STARSBRITEL) William Kentridge (FAUSTUS IN AFRICA). A world reputation based on international tours grew.” In 2000, Handspring created THE CHIMP PROJECT, depicting the rehabilitation of a tame chimpanzee into the wild. This was the first of three productions with animals as central characters. It was followed by TALL HORSE, with the Malian puppet company, Sogolon, which focuses on the gift of a giraffe by the Pasha of Egypt to the King of France in 1827. WAR HORSE is the third”.

Tom Morris, director of WAR HORSE, (with Marianne Elliot), saw a performance of THE CHIMP PROJECT at the Barbican and apparently fell in love with a hyena puppet-character. He subsequently made contact with the company and began a search for a project that the National Theatre and Handspring could collaborate on. It was in this pursuit that Mr Morris came across Michael Morpurgo’s novel for children called WAR HORSE.

Michael Morpurgo is a highly respected and honoured writer of over 100 children’s books. (As well as a co-founder, with his wife, of a charity: Farms for City Children). “I was in the pub, The Duke of York (in Iddesleigh, Devon). “Are you writing another book Michael?” said the old man sitting opposite me by the fire, cradling his pint. I told him that I’d come across an old painting of a cavalry charge in the First World War. The British cavalry were charging up a hill towards the German position, one or two horses already caught up on the barbed wire. I was trying, I told him, to write the story of the First World War through the eyes of a horse. “I was there in 1916,” the old man told me, his eyes filling with tears. “I was there with the horses too.” He talked on for hours about the horse he’d loved and left behind at the end of the war, how the old horse had been sold off to the French butchers for meat…….. How to tell such a story? I had to find a way that didn’t take sides. So I conceived the notion I might write the story of the First World war as seen through a horse’s eyes, a horse that would be reared on a Devon farm, by the forebears of the village people people I knew, a horse that is sold off the farm to go to the front as a British cavalry horse, is captured by the Germans and used to pull ambulances and guns, winters on a French farm. It would be the horse’s eye view of the universal suffering of that dreadful war in which ten million people died, and unknown millions of horses.”

Persuaded by Tom Morris of the possibility of adapting the novel for the stage, Mr Morpurgo realising the difference in the literary forms, allowed under commission from the National Theatre, Nick Stafford, to attempt the task. A series of workshops, both textually and physically began.

There is a fascinating documentary about the production history of WAR HORSE available (Extras – particularly engrossing, as well, on the DVD). It tells of the laborious process of exploration of the design (Rae Smith), puppet design & fabrication (Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler). The actor/company exploration of the Movement & Horse Choreography (Toby Sedgewick) and Sound/Voice work (Kate Godfrey, Jeanette Nalson). It seems to me, it is the intensity and support of this preparation that has arrived at a wonderful theatrical experience. I must add it is in ALL the areas of the artistic and craft inputs that combine holistically to create a unique experience. The Drawings (Rae Smith) and Video Designers (Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer for Fifty-Nine Productions), Lighting Designer (Paul Constable), an extraordinarily apt and moving Music Score (Adrian Sutton) and Songmaker (John Tams), and Sound Design (Christopher Shutt).

However, the key element to the success of this production, for me, are the absolutely astonishing puppet creations. Ten horses in all, (besides other animals), but, particularly, the two principal puppets bringing to life, JOEY, our hero and TOPTHORN, his companion. Three actors, manipulate these two creations of Mr Jones and Kohler (assisted by Craig Leo and Mervyn Millar). Their roles are divided between what is demarcated as the “head”, “heart” and “hind”. (NB Twelve puppeteers play Joey and Topthorn in rotation.) The miracle of these life sized puppets is that the magic wrought by these actors make/cause their presence to disappear and in the intricate details of these creations, a perfect suspension of disbelief occurs and the empathy that seemed to pour out of me for these “horse-characters”, that were real, during the performance, was replicated by my companions and the audience about me of all ages, children and adults.

The stage is a very broad oval thrust, painted in Vorticist (British art movement, eg Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska), grey, camouflage patterns, that are sensitive to the lighting patterns of Mr Constable to create the farm lands of Devon and the war zones of France. The stage is surrounded by huge black surrounds, from which, the huge creations of the team arrive to delight and frighten. Above the stage is a 25-metre wide projection screen, shaped like a ripped page from a sketchbook, (one of the principal human characters, Captain Nicholls, keeps a sketch record of his experiences, from his first vision of JOEY, galloping in the fields of Devon, to the rigours of the battlefields of France). It becomes the visual locator of the many environments of the story. Still Images covering a range of drawing styles, partnered by Video images create a very dense visual background to the experience of the play, mostly black and white, occasionally some muted colour. All of the images are wonderfully supported by a similarly dense and stimulating sound design and music score. The actual physical setting props, for the Narracott house etc, are simply represented by door frames and door.

The style of playing is that of a large Brechtian type ensemble, the actors playing a variety of characters with a variety of responsibilities, that are mostly representative. The character development is simplistic with a greater emphasis on the narrative and the use of ‘type’. Albert (Robert Emms) the original owner of JOEY and then the German soldier, Kavallerie Hauptmann Friedrich Muller (Patrick O’Kane), who finds and adopts JOEY on the battlefields of France, are the two humans that I made most attachment too. It IS the story of JOEY and TOPTHORN and the puppets that the three actors of each creation manipulate into life, that seduce the empathy and identification of the viewer. The apparent truthfulness of the movements of the horses, its gait in different states of movement, the extraordinary sensitivity of the leg and hoof movement combined with the astonishing life likeness of the neck and head and ears of the “horses” combined the vocal “dialogue”(the horses do not speak human text) of the horse developed by the actors, are totally absorbing. It is the subtle impression of the horse “Breathing” that is at the core of our suspension of disbelief. Miraculous.

From the flight of birds around the sky of the Devon countryside (I have to confess I blubbered with excitement at this first instance of puppet magic), the voyage of the ships across the Channel, the horrific charge of the British Cavalry Brigade into the German machine guns and barbed wire of the battlefields in France, to the terrifying entrance of a World War One tank menacing the environment of the battlefields, and the torturous entanglement of JOEY in the barbed wire and the near miss of the penultimate meeting with Albert and JOEY in the aftermath of the war, the imagination of the audience is in a full creative state of a visceral heart pounding kind. The great performance, then, of the evening, is that of each of the audience members, and, ultimately, the collective of all in the New London Theatre. The theatrical skill of this National Theatre enterprise, in engaging and maintaining our concentration and commitment, is breathtaking in its capacity. Literally, BREATHTAKING, taking our cues from the “horses” themselves. This is great theatre. I defy anyone not to be impressed.

On this wintry night out on the streets,in London, my companions and I registered our joy and wonder and smiled at our shedding of tears during the journey of human and animal lives and the horrors of war we had just witnessed. Nostalgically, I recalled my attachment to Black Beauty and Ginger in the Anna Sewell novel as a child. I recalled MY FRIEND FLICKA. Now as an adult, I, and to my pleasure, my companions, have two more heroes JOEY and TOPTHORN to include in our equine dreams.

I have heard rumours that this production may tour to Australia – (on what stage with the breadth and revolve could be utilised, worries me) and if it does DO NOT MISS: WAR HORSE.

(By the way, HANDSPRING PUPPET COMPANY have already toured to Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane in past years. Unlucky Sydney and Melbourne. Unlucky me.)

(PS : I had recently watched, with the gadgetry of 3D, AVATAR. Although impressed for a time with the technical achievements, the computer generated images finally were only computer generated images. The underdevelopment of the characters and the simplistic narrative and dumbed-downed politics of the piece, surfaced in my concentration during the watching of the film. There was no emotional attachment or any real caring for the characters or story or, even in the, pathetically,prophetically sad politics of the film.

After the WAR HORSE experience, in the theatre, I could not help to wonder at the differences of effect that the experience in the cinema and the theatre had given me. WAR HORSE will be a high water mark of experience on all levels. Character, narrative and politics. AVATAR will disappear as a minor event, as time and progress in the medium subsume the technical amazements [CGI] of AVATAR, takes place. The human element of joint invention and belief in the theatre triumphed.)

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6 replies to “War Horse”

  1. Sounds Fabulous, thanks for sharing this wonderful experience with us. Ah — all these great shows have the luxury of more time don't they? And I am reminded of this as I see many of the Sydney Festival offerings this hear. I wonder when Australian artists will DEMAND an increase in this resource for their work!

  2. I never go to the theatre and only went to meet a visiting relative who had a ticket and persuaded me to go.

    I had seen the documentary of the making of the horses but hadn't known the War Horse story. Its maybe a good idea that you do so you are prepared to take it all in.

    The story is simple but executed in a way like no other. As an audience member you end up having intense emotional investment in what is a essentially a wood and canvas puppet – and that I found remarkable. The fact that the horses behaviour on the stage can bring you to cry multiple times is reasonably shocking. If you had a Bambi emotional moment as a child this is that again x100 whatever your age.

    In fact the continuous pummelling of your emotions is almost unfair. I'm still at a bit of a loss to know what was so moving in the story whos basic plot can be outlined in 30 seconds. I think its the simplicity – from the story to the sets to the accompanying projected visual narrative to the stage action all concentrated the essence of it all straight into you.

    Its really because you get to love the horses, love Joey and Topthorne, and the goose.

    I'm not especially an animal lover, but if you are you will probably find it hard to cope with some of the ups and downs. But you must as you will miss out on something you really will remember forever if you don't. And once you do see it you will just want to drag everyone you know back there to show them what you have found. If you are a horse lover I'm not sure how you will cope.

    The fact that its for all ages is especially good too. I've said enough.

  3. Went to see War Horse last night, absolutely brilliant – I have never seen anything so original and awe inspiring. It has everything, humour, suspense etc. It was my 12 year olds birthday present to go and see this wonderful production. She is an avid fan of the author, Michael Morpurgo and it lived up to her expectations. Well done all.

  4. I saw War Horse recently with my school and absolutely loved it! A fantastic performance. I was in tears!

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