Monday, 31 December 2012

War Horse, Australian Premiere, Dec 31, 2012 ****1/2

Stage adaptation by Nick Stafford, based on Michael Morpurgo's novel, War Horse
Produced by The National Theatre of Great Britain and Global Creatures
Puppetry by Handspring Puppet Company
State Theatre, Melbourne Arts Centre
Monday Dec 31, 2012 to March 3, 2013 (previews Dec 23 -30, 2012)
Stars: ****1/2

A truncated version of my review appeared on Jan 1, 2013 in the News Pages and Arts page online in the Herald Sun. The following longer review will not be published in the paper. KH
 Photo by Joe Calleri

‘NEVER perform with children or animals,’ warns the old theatre adage, but in War Horse, the actors are upstaged and outshone by puppets: enormous, expressive horses that breathe, whinny and pulsate with muscular power and equine grace.

The excitement was palpable at last night’s New Year’s Even opening of the Australian production of this Tony and Olivier Award-winning play and the audience was peppered with Australian celebrities: Nick Cave, Magda Szubanski, Hugh Sheridan, Josh Thomas and Christie Whelan.

Adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel, War Horse is an epic tale about Albert (Cody Fern), a boy from a Devon village, who hunts for his beloved horse, Joey, during World War One, after Albert’s desperate father, Ted (Ian Bliss), sells Joey to the British cavalry.

Although the stage is nearly bare to accommodate the galloping, rearing creatures, Rae Smith’s line drawings, projected onto a suspended screen resembling a huge, torn scrap of paper, transport us through time and space, from 1912 to 1918 and from Devon to France.

There are poignant scenes that will twang the heartstrings of horse lovers as well as those touched by the tragedies of war including the horrors of boy soldiers fighting in trenches and cavalry horses faced with barbed wire and machine guns.
   Photo by Joe Calleri

With masterly manipulation, twelve skilful puppeteers breathe life into 18 puppets created by Handspring Puppet Company, including the uncannily lifelike, russet Joey and his pal, Topthorn, a dark beauty to rival Black Caviar, multiple cavalry horses and even an intrepid, hilarious goose.

The wartime period and landscape are evoked through British folk tunes sung live (Dave Evan, John Thompson) with piano accordion and these are counterpointed with a volatile soundscape of battlefield gunfire, explosions and music (Adrian Sutton, Christopher Shutt).

The production, directed originally by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris then remounted in Australia by Drew Barr, boasts 33 actors and creates broad, cinematic stage pictures with its tableaux of English country life and stylised battles at The Somme.

This production was designed for young audiences and families, so perhaps we must suspend any criticism of its slim story, shallow characterisations, simplified view of war, intermittent shameless sentimentalism and melodramatic style.
       Photo by Joe Calleri

Actors’ accents establish character and place, but the English accents are more successful than the uncomfortable German and French accents that could be more effectively replaced by the German and French language used in the London production.

Translating the sprawling narrative of a novel onto stage is difficult and, in this case, the human characters are not fully developed and their dialogue is sometimes prosaic, expository or preachy.

Cody captures young Albert’s youthful urgency but his insistent, earnest vocal tone becomes repetitive.

 Photo by Joe Calleri

Natasha Herbert is moving and credible as Albert’s mum, the reliable, stoical farmer’s wife, Bliss is suitably resentful as his boozing, jealous, wastrel dad, while Nicholas Bell is smug and imperious as Albert’s uncle, the village war hero.

War Horse captures the unswerving bond of a boy and his horse, the propaganda of war and the horror and heroism of the battlefield and its contrast with the bucolic peace of the English countryside – and you can almost smell the sweat and leather and hear the galloping hooves of those magnificent horses.

Kate Herbert
Photo by Joe Calleri

Directors: Marianne Elliott & Tom Morris
Director, Australian production: Drew Barr
Puppetry:Handspring Puppet Company (Adrian Kohler & Basil Jones)
Music: Adrian Sutton
Songmaker: Tams
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Lighting: Paule Constable
Design: Rae Smith
Video design: Leo Warner & Mark Grimmer

James Bell                                     Billy / Ludwig
Nicholas Bell                                Arthur / Sgt Thunder
Ian Bliss                                          Ted /Strauss
Adam Booth                                 Stewart /Heine
Mark Constable                          Carter / Klebb / Manfred
Andre de Vanny                         David
Mischana Dellora-Cornish     Ensemble Girl / Baby Joey / Annie Gilbert
Dave Evans                                   Songman
Cody Fern                                      Albert
Natasha Herbert                        Rose
Anna Houston                             Ensemble Woman / Matron Callaghan
Belinda Jombwe                        Emilie
Rory Kelly                                      Ensemble Boy / Baby Joey
Drew Livingston                         Acting Ensemble Swing
Dale March                                   Nicholls / Paddy/ Dr Schweyk / Heine
Kenneth Moraleda                    Ensemble Man / Vet Martin
Emma Palmer                              Paulette / Baby Joey
Gareth Reeves                            Klausen / Allan
John Thompson                          Songman
Andrew Tighe                              Priest / Friedrich
Karlis Zaid                                     Bone / Fine / Schnabel


Nick Barlow                                  Joey – Head
Kailah Cabanas                            Joey/Topthorn
- Head
Michael Cullen                           Topthorn – Heart
Nick Eaton                                     Joey – Heart
Grant Foulkes                              Joey/Topthorn
- Heart
 Lincoln Hall                                   Topthorn – Hind
Kiera Lyons                                    Joey/Topthorn
– Hind
Ben McIvor                                    Joey/Topthorn
– Hind
Sarah Nelson                               Joey - Hind
John Shearman                           Joey/Topthorn
Michael Wahr                             Joey/Topthorn – Head
Drew Wilson                                Joey/Topthorn


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