Returning to Australia is War Horse, the smash hit and Tony award winning music drama from the National Theatre of Great Britain. Originally based on a best selling novel written in 1982 by Michael Morpurgo, the play has a fairly even mix of performers on stage where about half are human characters and half are puppeteers for the extraordinary life size puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa.
It’s clear much time and attention has been spent studying the mannerisms and behaviour of the animals (horses and a comical goose) to provide realistic reactions from subtle nuzzling through to charging at a gallop. (Whoever would have thought that horses’ ears could express so much.) Wonderful puppeteer work that is rarely seen on the big stage. The program lists all performers alphabetically so even the principal roles get no extra attention.
The story follows the life of a horse called Joey from foal just learning to stand and walk through to retirement from a job for which he did not volunteer – World War I. Swirling around Joey are the human stories where two rival adult brothers are reconciled through the losses of war, the young owner Albert follows his excruciating, seemingly impossible journey to go into war and bring Joey back home; a French family and the German “Jerries”. The adaptation of the novel, by Nick Stafford, shows the humanity in both sides where each wonders why they should be conscripted and stand to lose millions of lives for the sake of “Kings and Kaisers” while their families sit neglected at home. It’s a heavy story dragging the audience through the horrors of war for the majority of the duration.
The Designer Rae Smith requires special credit for her high class stylised scenery. Splashed across a huge torn piece of paper that spreads the full width of the stage flows projected hand pencil drawings of the scenery and action, sometimes fading in, sometimes swiping past at the speed the horses are travelling.
Props are kept to a minimum and almost every piece has multiple uses making the inventory as simple as possible for touring. Highly practical as, since inception in 2007, this production has toured the UK, Canada, Europe, South Africa, China, Singapore and Broadway plus an earlier visit to Australia in 2012.
So, without any performer getting star status the production must be seen as a whole. As mentioned, props and sets are superb, the performers highly adept in fulfilling all that needs to be communicated. This is weighty drama with only the tiniest relief through humour. Not recommended for children. Even though the choreography and visuals make artistic representation of people being blown up, horses dying, explosions etc, it’s still not designed to be a pleasant ride and can be very stressful at times. We are very lucky we live in a world where wars seem to be coming to an end (NB – there have been no new wars since 2016). With one country after another standing up in protest and demanding accountability from those who have used us in the past, we certainly live in extraordinary times where the potential for peace may finally be here.
WAR HORSE plays at the Lyric Theatre, The Star until 15 March.
Check for performance details on the website: https://warhorseonstage.com.au/