Review – “War Horse”

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National Theatre
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre
2nd April 2014

The applause had died down, the cast had left the stage and the house lights had gone up, but I did not want to leave. The world created in War Horse was so compelling, so moving and, ultimately so real that it captured me within it. This adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s timeless novel by Nick Stafford is utterly stunning.
Of all of the aspects of this production, the puppetry by Handspring Puppet Company stood out and turned this from a great production to a groundbreaking one. The vitality of all of the animal puppets from the tiny birds to the horses is breathtaking. The awe felt by the audience is tangible as Joey rears up on his hind legs; however, there is another element to the puppets that brings a whole new dimension to the piece. This is the use of puppets instead of people as the battalion rides into battle. As the puppeteers animate them for their short lives, one is hit with the realisation that in the war they were all puppets. Every soldier in the war, from the Captains Friedrich Muller and Nicholls to the lowest foot soldier, was a puppet, a pawn. This incredible use of the puppets on a metaphorical level as well as a visual level gives the play a depth of reality and power that is hard to match.
Alongside the puppetry, the excellent performances convey all of the minutiae of emotion within every character. Martin Wenner delivered a particularly excellent performance as Hauptmann Friedrich Muller. The way in which the character is written combined with Wenner’s performance powerfully conveys the hugely important message that both sides were essentially the same. The German soldiers were as human as the Allies and suffered as much as they did. Lee Armstrong was very good in the role of Albert, bringing the youth of his character and his experience of the war excellently to the stage. The performance of the excellent musical numbers was also very powerful. The ensemble pieces were wonderfully moving, but it was the warm, resonant, expressive voice of Bob Fox that really stood out.
Finally, the technical design on the show was superb. The projections were beautiful yet maintained the harsh reality of the war. The same can be said for the lighting design. The gentleness of a country village and the horrors of the battlefield were equally well described through the lighting. At some points during the battle scenes, the audience feels the full force of the flashes of light from explosions, serving to draw us further into the story and connect us even more to the characters.
This play is, in short a visually astounding, heart-wrenching, heart-warming tale of one boy and his horse.

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