War Horse

Just back from two days in London with the family, including a trip to the New London Theatre to see War Horse. Having deliberately avoided reading the book or seeing the film - despite it being one of daughter no2's favourite stories -I had the joy of watching the tale unfold in front of my eyes, in a way that was both familiar (due to its WW1 setting) and fresh.

In case you've been living under a brick, War Horse is taken from the children's book by Michael Morpurgo, that tells the story of Joey, the beloved horse of teenaged farmer's son Albert. Joey is sold to the army, and so follows a painful history of life in the trenches and at the Front Line for both man and horse. It's not The Faraway Tree, this so-called children's book.

The National Theatre production of War Horse opened in 2007, and quickly won enormous popular and critical acclaim. The horses - and a few birds - were provided by the Handspring Puppet Company. The production went on to win awards for set design and choreography, and was revived in 2008. It has subsequently transferred to the New London Theatre, an appropriately intimate venue.

I was aware that the puppetry was clever and beautiful. What astounded me was how quickly it drew me in, so that within a couple of minutes I had totally bought in to the lie that this flimsy structure of cane and cloth was living and breathing and yearning and loving, right in front of my eyes.

I grew up with the Sooty Show; Lambchop; Emu; later, Spit the Dog. They 'talked' to the puppeteer; there was no effort to make them 'real' animals. They bore no more resemblance to a bear, a sheep, a bird or a dog than did a sock or a piece of fake fur. They were cartoon characters, alter-egos of the puppeteers.

More believable, oddly, were the Muppets. Here were authentic characters that existed as their own beings. No matter that no rat is blue and no pig wears a feather boa; what sells us the characters is their autonomy. But of course these are not real animals, that would convince outside of the construct of the Show.

On seeing the Lion King several years ago I was wowed by the use of masks and puppet. The first shock was seeing the actors faces below the masks, and the puppeteers themselves on stage. The curtain had been swept aside, and the audience could see backstage to all the little tricks of the theatre. It wasn't magic; but it was magical.

In War Horse every effort has been made to study the movement of horses, and replicate that - the way their bodies move, and how their emotional responses translate into tiny movements and subtleties. Joey was real: there, right in front of me. And yet I could also see the three puppeteers it took to bring him to life - two pairs of legs between the horse's legs, and one man standing beside the head. It wasn't a horse and three men I saw, however; all were part of the same whole, a device that was exploited when a horse later died and the puppeteers rolled away, as if the soul was leaving the body.

Morpurgo wrote his book from the point of view of the horse, Joey. For the stage this was necessarily changed, which enables a rounder, fuller tale to be told - one that tells us Albert's story during the time of separation. My daughter still prefers the book version, as she adored the 'voice' of Joey and felt that his version of events played up some characters that were more muted within the stage version. Point of view choices are always interesting, and it is good to see that the stage version embraced the necessity of change so positively and made this tale their own.


blue hands said…
Sounds absolutely wonderful. x

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