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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National Theatre( Olivier)

By Edwin Wilson

  A scene from War Horse

War Horse, at the National Theatre, is a strange animal: an amalgam of three theatrical elements: an appealing children's story, based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo , a vivid, often frightening depiction of the carnage of World War I, and the puppet wizardry of a group called the Handspring Puppet Company. Sometimes the mixture works well, at other times the parts appear very much at odds with one another.

The story is simple. A drunken father (Toby Sedgwick, in a competition with his brother, buys a hunting horse for his son Albert (Luke Treadway). Albert tames the horse, Joey, when no one else can, even teaching the hunter to plow when he is in danger of losing him. Horse and boy become soul mates. When World War I comes along, the father secretly sells Joey to the army for 100 pounds. Learning this, Albert runs away to join the army. In France, the horse is frequently under fire, pulling medical wagons and caissons. Meanwhile, Albert, separated from Joey, is temporarily blinded by mustard gas. At the end, as you can imagine, horse and boy are reunited in a scene that cannot help but bring tears to the eyes of the most cynical theatre-goer.

The production is meant to be as much for children as grown-ups and at the matinee I saw over half the audience was filled with young people. Perhaps the young have been inoculated to violence by horror and action films, but my reaction was that many of the battle scenes, using the full panoply of the seemingly unlimited resources of the National Theatre, were far too graphic: huge tanks rolling across the stage, caissons in full battle mode, the rat-a-tat-tat of Gatling guns, the blinding flash of explosives. To me, the mixture of these horrific scenes of battle with a straightforward children's tale came across as highly questionable.

What was not in doubt, however, was the magic of the puppets, primarily Joey and the other horses. Joey, made of simple wooden parts and papier mache, was operated by three handlers. From the beginning, Joey becomes as real as any human on stage, bobbing his head, twitching his ears, flipping his tail, rearing up, he a horse incarnate, with his own very wining personality. Equally impressive among the puppets are other horses, a goose, a vulture, and a small girl, Emilie, who befriends Joey at a crucial time.

Despite the excesses of the battle scenes, the threads of the production - the story, the war, the puppets - often work together to produce an impressive and moving theatre experience. I should add also that the British audiences do not appear to share my discomfiture regarding the violence: the show is sold out at the National through its entire run. There are several explanations for this: One is the abiding love the English have of horses, an affection that goes beyond that found elsewhere another is the popularity of the book on which the play is based still a third is the remarkable, one might say astonishing resonance that World War I continues to have for the English. In other words, if you are British, War Horse is right up your alley.


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