Come for the Horse, stay for the War.
Presented by the National Theatre of Great Britain and playing at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, this production of Michael Morpurgo’s time-honoured tale concerning man, beast and battle is an emotional foray into human connections, the brutality of conflict, and the spirit of our animal companions.
Which lifts immensely after its interval.
Adapted by Nick Stafford and telling the story of 16-year-old Albert Narracott (Scott Miller) and the purchase, pedagogy, privation and pursuit of his beloved horse Joey throughout World War I, directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris have created a stunning picture of the narrative’s landscapes.
Whether it be the English city of Exeter, with a rural and musty light-and-smoke combination (courtesy Lighting Designer Paule Constable and Ben Moult’s Technical Stage Management), or a harrowing Western Front as aurally intense with explosions and gunshots (courtesy Sound Designer Christopher Shutt and Music Director Tim Sutton) as it is visually blinding by sharp bursts of white light amidst spatially-distorting darkness, War Horse is a spectacle.
The highest praise, however, must go to the show’s visual projections and puppetry.
On what appears to be a torn piece of paper, 59 Projections’ Projection Design drives the play by introducing settings, temporally contextualising the space, or adding to the on stage hysteria. Though the designs are simple, it is an effective anchor for the audience that allows them to keep up with the performance’s pace.
And such pace is no better controlled than by the puppeteers. Voicing and controlling horses Joey and Topthorn, other assorted animals, and a particularly pesky goose, the crew operate the stunningly-designed machines (courtesy Rae Smith) with an intricate precision, engendering a humanism that will draw gasps from the audience when they are abused or on the verge of death.
Indeed, it is hard to do the animals written justice; they are a magnificent achievement in engineering and artistry, with their puppeteers mixing emotion and ergonomics so seamlessly that one is impressed with them in these respects and more.
For the human characters, my opinion is a little more mixed.
The first 80 minutes of the production are tumultuous. Miller’s initial characterisation of Narracott is one that lacks an authenticity in his relationship with Joey, but finds it with parents Rose (Jo Castleton) and Ted (Colin Connor). Moments of ensemble work exude unmatchable atmospheres of competition and unity, but the dialogue that precedes and follows this is regularly hard to hear; making it a notable issue.
Similarly, Castleton’s humorous Rose is easily the crowd favourite, but one can prefer the technicality of singer/musician Songman (Ben Murray), a welcome recurring presence who drives the story forward. Danny Hendrix’s Billy Narracott, by contrast, does not so much toe the line between over-acting and wartime shell-shock as it does completely lose sense of where the line is at all, turning a comic performance cringe.
I am glad to say, however, that the ensuing 80 minutes is far more enjoyable.
Though Christopher Naylor as German officer Friedrich Muller mirrors Hendrix’s difficulties early on, his performance transforms the more he is on stage. This is mirrored by Miller; there is now desperation in Albert’s search for Joey, strong chemistry between him and Khalid Daley (who plays private David with charm), and a genuine sense of purpose to his journey.
The rest of the cast follow suit. Those there for comic relief does just that. German and British soldiers exhibit everything from boyhood naivety to wartime depression beautifully (and much more audibly). And the closing scene featuring Albert, Joey and Rose – backed by a singing Murray-led ensemble – is enough to make a grown man cry.
Ultimately, it seems going to war is just what this production needed to be everything that it could be. War Horse is a show that, after a mixed start, sweeps one up in its emotions and doesn’t let off. A thoroughly enjoyable performance that should not be missed.