With the New Year only a few hours old, is it too soon to proclaim War Horse the theatrical highlight of 2013?
Exhilarating, inspirational and heart wrenching in equal measure, War Horse is that rare combination of epic story and cutting edge artistry that makes live theatre such a thrill. Arriving in sterling shape on opening night, the Australian staging looks sure to replicate the international success of the National Theatre of Great Britain’s acclaimed and beloved production.
Foremost in advance publicity has been the use of puppets in the show, but this is far from a ‘puppet show.’ Gorgeous chestnut brown star Joey and his comrade black beauty Topthorn are each performed by a set of three puppeteers who work as one to achieve an incredible range of emotions. Through ticks and twitches, sounds and body language, the puppeteers convey the growth, fears and joys of the two horses. As spectacular as these puppets are to see in motion, their presence is wholly to serve the story, never to overpower it. The horses, along with a cantankerous goose and some vicious vultures, are all the ingenious creations of South Africa’s Handspring Theatre Company.
Joey is first seen as a frisky foal, bought at auction by foolhardy Ted Narracott in a case of drunken one-upmanship with his brother Arthur. It’s love at first sight for Ted’s passionate son Albert, who raises Joey with all the love and affection he has to give. Separated when Ted sells Joey to be an officer’s horse, the hope-filled journey of boy and horse plays out against the devastation and cruel inhumanity of war.
With the production values and cast size of a lavish musical, the production fills the massive stage of the State Theatre with ease. Proving herself a creative triple threat, designer Rae Smith has not only devised the realistic costumes and cleverly representative sets but has also created the highly evocative drawings projected on the back screen. The screen is presented as a torn shred from the sketchpad of Lieutenant James Nicholls, with the backdrops animated in a style that recreates live drawing by hand. A particular point that Smith makes with her work is man’s mimicry of horses in machinery. Cranes are seen bobbing and lifting like horses, and in a particular animal versus machine moment, Joey and an ominous black tank rear up at each other in the same way Joey and Topthorn had done earlier.
The lighting design of Paule Constable allows magical entrances to be made from the inky blackness surrounding the stage, and the production flows forth with cinematic dissolves. The horror of war, notoriously difficult to convey on stage, is effectively achieved by the collaboration of sound, set and light designers to represent gunfire, bombs and explosions, as well as by the deadly impact on the characters of the story.
One of Australian director Drew Barr’s many masterstrokes is the casting of a set of virtual unknowns. The authenticity and integrity achieved by this most un-commercial move are palpable. Almost every performer plays more than one role, each clearly delineated, and full company moments are extremely powerful. Nicholas Bell and Ian Bliss ground the adult cast as sparring brothers Arthur and Ted Narracott, with strong support from Dale March as Lieutenant Nicholls. From the large, evenly matched supporting cast, mention must be made of Lincoln Hall (so fabulous as the fey Franz in Rock of Ages) as the garrulous goose.
As the headstrong Albert, newcomer Cody Fern delivers a star-making mainstage debut. Good looking and magnetic on stage and yet with an appealing accessible vulnerability, Fern seems cut from the same cloth as current rising star Eddie Redmayne. Taking Albert from petulant youth to devoted rider to mature-beyond-his-years soldier, Fern gives a wholly endearing performance, the first of many to come no doubt.
War Horse is event theatre that cannot be missed.
You may also enjoy: Man in Chair’s Photo Preview of War Horse.