A comparison between Rosemary Johns’ As Told By The Boys Who Fed Me Apples and the National Theatre’s War Horse is somewhat inevitable, Johns herself mentions it in the opening of her writer’s notes. Both tell the story of the horses conscripted for use in World War One, for battle and supply and armaments transport, both reveal the tragedy that very few of the animals made it home. But As Told By The Boys Who Fed Me Apples focuses on an Australian story, that of Sandy, the only horse to be returned to Australia. While it doesn’t have the big budget stagecraft of a production like War Horse, As Told By The Boys Who Fed Me Apples provides an earnest, if very familiar, perspective of the horrors of the war.
There are outstanding performances from Dion Mills, as the soldiers that Sandy spends time with during the war, and Miklos Gerely, who is mesmerizing as Sandy himself. Gerely moves about the space with grace and impressive precision, his footwork is superb, the key to a genuinely believable portrayal of a horse. The play is essentially a monologue, with Mills’ characters guiding us through the three parts of Sandy’s wartime experience , from Gallipoli to the Western Front and finally to Calais and home to the Maribyrnong remount depot. While Mills’ has an arresting stage presence, at times the pacing felt slow and laborious, full of now-clichéd images of war.
While the suffering of men and animals at the front is not something to be forgotten or underestimated, As Told By The Boys Who Fed Me Apples didn’t seem to provide any new insight into our understanding of or dialogue about the war. It seemed a little repetitive, and it was difficult to delineate between Mills’ characters in the first and second section. The third section, in which Mills appeared as Archibald Thomas Jordan, was far more engaging. It revealed a more personal experience of the war as Jordan spoke about his friends and family back home, and his grand plans for his return with Sandy by his side.
Director Greg Carroll manages the text well, wrangling the mammoth monologue into an engaging form with good use of space and movement. However, there were some moments that didn’t quite work, jolting me from my immersion in the action a little. At one point Mills’ Major-General Bridges lies grievously wounded on the ground, the next he is on his feet struggling towards safety before falling again in agony. I through this seemed unlikely, given the apparent severity of his wounds, and it perhaps reflected a need to break up the monotony of the text with different levels more than anything else. There was also a sequence later in the play when Mill’s Jordan is describing a night at the cinema. The lighting effect is superb in this moment, with a soft flickering transporting Mills and Gerely back to a Melbourne cinema, but I didn’t quite understand Gerely’s sudden transformation into a knee-slapping, laughing cinema patron.
Designer Peter Mumford’s set is both practical and intriguing, though I would question the need for the saddle and gas mask hanging from the ceiling as it interrupts the naturalism. The space is split in two: downstage dressed as a stable which is transformed into a ship or a battlefield as needed, and upstage an eerie otherworldly space where Sandy trots to and fro. Shane Grant’s lighting design is exceptional, providing the transformative element that makes each world presented onstage so real and believable. Michael Havir’s sound design also adds a lot to the production, particularly in the quiet moments of respite as we hear birds signing, though there were a few moments when I found the sound effects and some of the accompanying music a little jarring, particularly the resonating chimes that played as the characters passed into the otherworldly space at the rear of the stage.
As Told By The Boys Who Fed Me Apples may not have the big budget or the epic scale of War Horse but it is certainly a testament to the incredible storytelling capabilities of independent theatre-makers in this country. This production is efficient in its expressive form, using evocative design and polished, precise performances to tell a story that exists on an epic scale. They have managed to fit this sprawling tale of the horrors of World War into a small theatre in Footscray, and it is an applaudable achievement.