By Jessica Taurins
The opening sentence of the War Horse program, penned by the original book’s author, Michael Morpurgo, reads like this:
“War Horse is not my story.”
This is the most succinct way to describe the show, both in its simple moments of joy and complex, painful, truly terrible depictions of war. War Horse, at its core, is not a tale owned by any one person or animal, and in the stage show the focus is never on one single person or animal – it focuses on a collection of moments and people across the entire course of the war and never stops impressing its spellbound audience.
The War Horse production was first staged in 2007, and since then it has been on multiple international tours, including this one across Australia, from the National Theatre of Great Britain. The story has, over time, also been adapted into a film, giving the tale yet another chance to resonate powerfully with its global audience.
It opens gently, with the swelling of string music and a pair of gleeful bird puppets careening across the stage, transformed in the theatre of the mind to a gentle field in Devon. It doesn’t take much to make the audience feel welcomed into the intimate space of an awkward foal, Joey, a few uncomfortable steps and snuffles in the grass from the expert puppeteers and it’s as though you’re there with the beautiful creature.
It’s easy to forget the puppeteers are even there. They are so rehearsed from months of strength training, practice, and ‘thinking like a horse’ that they blend so well into even this small creature, let alone the full sized horse puppets that are introduced later in the show. But, with careful focus, one can see their facial expressions, scrunched up as Joey is frightened by something in the grass, or gentle and interested when Joey first meets his best friend Albert (Scott Miller). The puppeteers also provide the voices for all of their horses, breathing and whinnying well enough that they could be mistaken for the real thing.
The puppets themselves, designed by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, are spectacular to see. Their articulation allows the puppeteers to move them in a remarkably fluid fashion, constantly breathing life into the animals. Joey and Topthorn, the main ‘war horses’ of the story, have incredible personalities that are only possible due to the mixing of Kohler and Jones’ designs along with the skill of the puppeteers. Topthorn, a proud horse, holds his head high and stands above Joey to assert his dominance when needed. Joey, a horse tamed by farm work and the love of his boy, is younger and cheekier, he flits across the stage to investigate anything that takes his fancy in the way a horse truly would.
The set design is very simple, with most props from fences to massive tanks being held by puppeteers and background performers. Designer Rae Smith describes her solution as ‘poetic’ rather than realistic, relying primarily on a torn sketchbook page floating high above the performers, upon which projections told a lot of the story – location, date, etc.. The page was used as a sketchbook throughout the show as well, switching smoothly from sketched villages to spiked, aggressive depictions of elements of war.
There are warnings on the theatre doors about loud noises and smoke, and they are to be heeded. The terrors of war are shown in great detail – although they’re presented in an unrealistic and dreamlike manner they are still clear representations of machine guns mowing down lines of soldiers and people being killed on sight by enemies unknown. It’s confronting and unsettling to see a man shot for committing no crime other than speaking a different language, but War Horse does not shy away from showing these elements, nor should it. The intense music and sounds of gunfire and explosions rattle the entire theatre, and along with the blindingly bright lights they can make the audience, for a moment, feel as though they’ve been transported back in time.
Ben Murray, credited as the Songperson, ties the show together in a most impressive manner. He is present in almost every scene during every moment in time, narrating the story via powerful a capella songs. Occasionally he’s accompanied by soldiers heading to war or townspeople celebrating, but so often he sings alone, his clear voice ringing across the theatre. It was a real delight every time he appeared onstage and he should definitely be lauded for his performance.
The rest of the company – too many to name individually – all contribute enormously to the success of the show. Miller (as Albert) is heart-wrenchingly naive at some points and brave at others, joining the war to search for Joey after he is sold to the army. There are moments of intense hopelessness once the war begins, and Miller makes the audience palpably feel his fear even to the very back of the theatre.
Still, there are also moments of hope. The story allows for sympathy on both sides, giving the audience a glimpse of soldiers who don’t want to fight any longer and some who didn’t even want to fight at all. In the fields of France there is a young girl Emilie (Natalie Kimmerling) who finds delight in meeting Joey in the midst of all the danger. This is one of the moments that contrasts so well with the distressing themes of war, reminding us that World War I affected people of all kinds, be they soldiers or civilians, and many just wanted their lives to return to normal, finding tiny pieces of beauty among the fear.
War Horse is, truly, not just about the story of Albert and his Joey. It’s about each person who experienced the war coming into their homes and taking things they loved – family, friends, safety. It’s about the landscape utterly destroyed by the wheels of machine guns and ambulance wagons, the dead people and animals alike littering what were once fertile fields. And, in our lives, it’s about each and every performer: every actor playing a role to remind us of the terror of warfare, every puppeteer taking a synchronised step to bring a powerful horse to life. There is no one person at the focus, nor should there be. It is a massive and amazing undertaking both as a story and as a stage show, and every person in the audience is so, so lucky to be a part of it.