War Horse | the National Theatre of Great Britain

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Image by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

For millennia art and philosophy have attempted to explain the particular relationship between humans and animals. A relationship that is paradoxically twisted around cruelty and productivity as much as it incorporates love and care. Michael Morpurgo’s novel adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford attempts to distill this complexity in the story of a boy and his horse at the centre of one of humankind’s worst legacies.

It’s understandable to want to explore human and animal relationships during wartime and even in battle. It calls into question the consequences of human’s worst, most brutal, and most cruel decisions on the world’s entirely innocent creatures. In particular, the animals dragged into wars, recruited for their physical abilities including dogs, cattle, pigeons, and especially horses have been and continue to be honoured for having their lives taken from them in monuments like the Animals in War Memorial in London or Sydney’s Australian Light Horse Sculpture Parade. In War Horse, Joey comes to represent an amalgamation of different horses and their stories, many of which did not end as well as his did.

Purchased in a jealous fit, Joey works hard to earn his place at the Narracott farm with training from Albert (Scott Miller) but the requirements of war and Albert’s greedy father (Colin Connor) end up sending Joey, and then Albert, off to the frontline in France. The battlefield brings countless horrors including dead soldiers and civilians, new military technology like machine guns that wreak not before seen damage, and relentless mistreatment of animals like Joey and another cavalry horse Topthorn. Repeatedly Joey narrowly escapes death due to his remarkable quality that inspires immediate adoration in those who come across him. It’s disquieting the rapidity with which people devote themselves to Joey because of his grace and beauty when considering the other animals who were less graceful or less beautiful and therefore less lucky. There is an unspoken hierarchy about which animals don’t deserve mistreatment and the handful of people who are able to identify them. But perhaps this is a cynical interpretations of a story aiming to use one horse as representative of an ideal for all animals, not just the exceptional ones.

Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’s direction is certainly interested in uncomfortable contrasts with the variant tones between country Devon and the French farmland turned battlefield. Domestic scenes are drawn out with a lot of empty air expanding the length of dialogue whereas cavalry charges seem to run up suddenly, interrupting the production with terrifying explosions and gunshots. The tension of Paule Constable’s lighting design and Christopher Shutt’s sound design is difficult to shake after the first conflict and only builds with each additional explosion.

The relatively simple staging with minimal set pieces, other than a tear of paper across the sky on which Rae Smith’s illustrations are projected (animation by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer for 59 Productions) to give context for each scene, leaves a lot to audience imagination. Flashing lights, explosions, and the smell of smoke use select senses to reconstruct the frontline of World War I, while the most remarkable aspect of suspended disbelief gallops across the stage. Designed and constructed by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler for Handspring Puppet Company, the horses of the production are incredible. Each puppet from Joey as a foal and a grown horse to Topthorn and background horses Coco and Heine is expertly controlled by a team of puppeteers bringing life and character to the beloved animals. Puppetry directors Jones and Kohler with choreographer Toby Sedgwick capture the mannerisms of horses including whinnying, kicking, jumping, and all the delicate movements of a real animal, recreated with unbelievable realism.

As far as the humans go, Miller as Joey’s soulmate is an authentic soppy sixteen-year-old learning about heartbreak in horrible circumstances. German captain Friedrich Müller (Christopher Naylor) provides unexpected complexity through his relationship with French civilians Emilie (Natalie Kimmerling) and her mother Paulette (Kiran Landa), who remind Friedrich of his family and the futility of fighting for a life away from them. His narrative arc in many ways carries the weight of the entire war effort, giving voice to regrets, confusion, and general disenchantment felt widely on both sides. Understandably under these conditions, the earnestness of Naylor’s performance wavers at times and remains unbolstered against other soldiers’ undiscerning patriotism.

As a production about the first Great War, the suffering and sacrifice from across Europe and the Commonwealth, and the innocence lost, War Horse is bound to be deeply emotional, tied up in historical connotations and the reverberating consequences. A songperson (Ben Murray) singing old English ballads between and through scenes ties War Horse to a larger narrative and increases the weight of loss in hand with Adrian Sutton and John Tams’s emotive composition and lyrics. While frequently appearing as more of an intrusive hinderance than an inspiring lyrical thread, the songperson’s presence is important for constructing the British legend. With War Horse already woven into history, the wounds can heal, but have the lessons yet been learned?

War Horse is running at the Sydney Lyric Theatre from February 18th – March 15th

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