Review By Nicola Bennett
The phenomenon of War Horse has reached every corner of the globe over the last decade and continues to impress audiences worldwide. This production’s current residency in the newly refurbished Regent Theatre brings much excitement and anticipation for Melbourne audiences, and will therefore have a considerable reputation to uphold during this run. War Horse examines and celebrates the connection between man and horse, as a bond between a farm boy and his beloved horse is put to the ultimate test against the traumatic and devastating backdrop of the First World War. A well-established wartime narrative is given new life via the performance medium of puppetry, which artfully encapsulates the physical and emotional toll of human conflict on the animals involved. Albert Narracott, a young farm boy turned infantry soldier, raises and cares for his equine companion Joey from foal to fully grown. Once separated by the actions of war, their connection is put to the ultimate test as Albert traverses battlefields to reunite with his beloved Joey.
Scott Miller captures the simple innocence of the horse’s owner, Albert Narracott, with mostly endearing dedication to the protection of Joey. In moments this character teeters on the edge of being somewhat one-dimensional in his steadfast mission to find and protect his horse, but this may be attributed to the simplistic nature of the script throughout this production. Despite the story’s original source being a hugely popular novel, the actual written dialogue doesn’t offer any major challenge to the performers. Nevertheless, the script is performed well and the accents consistently complement the authenticity of the performance. Albert’s mother and father are played strongly by Jo Castleton and Colin Connor respectively, establishing a believable family dynamic between the three actors. Multiple smaller supporting roles also add to the story’s depth, with a high level of professionalism and polish evident in the execution of multiple rapidly-changing scenes and settings. Specific recognition must go to Christopher Naylor, whose depiction of the empathetic German soldier Friedrich Müller was at various times was both uplifting and heartbreaking for the audience.
The stand-out feature of this production, and the factor that sets it apart from many others, is the exemplary use of puppetry throughout its storytelling. In the capable hands of the award-winning Handsprings Puppet Company, various animals take form to gallop, waddle and soar across the stage and engage with almost scary realism with the cast and each other. Various layers of intertwined metal and material create a rich texture across the surface of the horses, adding further to the lifelike state that the puppeteers create. The puppetry evolves to further capture the passage of time at the Devon farm and the crippling effect of a long war on a once mighty Thoroughbred. The attention to detail in War Horse’s puppetry execution is outstanding - neighs, winnies and snorts communicates the horses’ emotional reactions in conjunction with realistic movements and mannerisms to match. How these puppeteers manage to convey such emotion and physicality through their craft is astonishing and a treat for the audience, justifiably receiving rapturous applause for their work in tonight’s performance.
The set design is minimal, with the actors using their costuming and hand-held prop pieces instead to sharpen the audience’s understanding of their setting. A large backdrop overhangs above the stage, with intermittent cursive projected onto the screen to provide the date and location, but ultimately the performance space allows for easy transition between England and France. The few pieces of major set items are impressive in their menacing nature - coils of barbed wire that litter the Somme, a heavy machine gun wielded by German artillery, at one point even the rounded tracks of a tank - all adding effectively to the darkness of the Western Front and Albert’s hopes of reuniting with Joey. Viewers should be warned of the intense lighting and sound choices that this production includes - heavy gunfire sound effects, loud explosion sounds and flashing lights are all used heavily in this show to create the intensity of the warfront. It is effective in its depiction but may prove sensorially and emotionally overwhelming, as the production doesn’t shy away from the devastation or confronting nature of its subject matter.
It is a rare opportunity to see a production of this unique style at such a high standard. Equipped with full knowledge of the darker subject matter and the intense effects used to portray it, audiences should go along to witness this masterful work and be confident in their investment in a great night of visually spectacular entertainment. War Horse is playing at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne until February 8th 2020.
Image Credit: Brinkhoff Mögenburg
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.