Saturday, September 7, 2013

War Horse (New London Theatre) - superb puppetry makes you feel for Joey


War Horse
New London Theatre
Drury Lane
London WC2B 5PW

Phone: 020 7452 3000
Nearest Tube station:
Holborn, Covent Garden, Temple
Steven Spielberg said that he wept after watching War Horse in London a couple of years back. That provides the inspiration for the movie that he subsequently made. Having watched the movie first, I wonder whether I would I react.

For the uninitiated, War Horse is about the relationship between a "hunter" horse, affectionately named Joey and a farm boy, Albert (Sion Daniel Young) who tamed and reared it. When the Kaiser declared war, they were seperated only to be reunited after a series of heart wrenching events that are nothing short of miracles.

Featuring a large cast, War Horse makes extensive use of puppetry - all of the horses in the play including Joey are puppets. Images of Joey was beamed around the world when it famously did a gallop across the roof of National Theatre and saluting the Queen on her Diamond Jubilee when the Royal Barge crossed Waterloo Bridge.

The depiction of Joey and its fellow horse, Topthorn is no small feat. The teams of three puppeteers capture the spirit, frustration, anguish, doubt and elation of of each horse with trembles of the horses' torsos, swishing of their tails and swaying of their heads. You tend to forget that the horses are mere puppets and begin to feel for them when disasters strike.

In the cavalry charge scene, you can feel the tension in the air when line is exposed but continue to charge headlong into a hail of machine gun fire amid the booms of artillery. As the line of horses with their riders are cut down with on the revolving stage, dread reigns.

There are of course hits and misses with the puppets. There is a duck providing some comic relief back at the farm. Ravens pecking at the corpse and carcasses in the battlefields. But what I just cannot get are the the pair of birds that occasionally take to the sky. These small bird puppets are perched on the end of a long pole; whenever they appear, all I can see are the long poles and the puppeteers waving them.

With the fighting between the British and Germans on French soil, War Horse does not take the easy way out of translating the foreign tongues into English. Instead, we see long dialogues and entire scenes in German and French. While this may inconvenient some in the audience, it does add authenticity to the play.

The solo folk singing by adds to the soulfulness of the scenes. The violin and accordion accompaniment introduce a wistful and melancholy feel to the tune. While it does not have the international acclaim that some of its West End counterparts have, it is not short of character. Ultimately, there are some things that are difficult to represent on the stage as compared to the movie. The converse is true as well. Judge it on its own and not with Spielberg's blockbuster. And you might just fall in love with War Horse.

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