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BWW Reviews: Beautifully Articulate WAR HORSE a Theatrical Juggernaut

Joey comes home in WAR HORSE
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

"Fading away like the stars of the morning, losing their light in the glorious sun-" a folksy Song Man sings in WAR HORSE, "thus would we pass from the earth and its toiling, only remembered for what we have done." By now a theatrical juggernaut that has conquered the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, Germany and Holland, WAR HORSE has finally made its way onto South African stages. What makes the play's bow especially moving is its well-known South African link: the puppets created by Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones of the Handspring Puppet Company. As many a headline has declared since the local tour was announced: Joey has come home. And when the curtain falls after any performance of WAR HORSE around the world, it is the beautifully articulated animal puppetry that lingers longest in the audience's memory.

Taking audiences back a century to the outbreak of World War I, WAR HORSE is the story of a teenage boy, Albert Narracot, and his bond with a horse, Joey, that his father wins in an auction. A horse meant for riding, Albert is given the task of getting Joey to take a plough, and it is in that process that the two become forever entwined in each other's destiny. When the war breaks out, Joey is sold to the army. It is not long before Albert follows him to France, where their separate experiences of the war reveal some of the barbaric horrors of warfare.

LeeArmstrong as Albert with
Baby Joey in WAR HORSE
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

Adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford from the novel by Michael Morpurgo, WAR HORSE uses the experience of animals to provide a revealing observation of what happens when human beings turn on each other. Early on in the play, at the auction where Joey is sold, Albert's father, Ted, and uncle, Arthur, compete for the horse's ownership. Domestic affairs turn brother against brother, just as political affairs turn nation against nation in war. Right at the start of the play, the audience is reminded of the personal impact of war that fades more easily into the background as was becomes more technologically advanced. The characters in WAR HORSE are shocked by the barbarism of machine guns, warfare in trenches bordered by barbed wire and chemical warfare; imagine what they would make to drone warfare.

It is that sense of the injustice of war, shown to use not only through the experience of the human characters in the play, but also through the horrific treatment of horses on the battlefield in a war where cavalry no longer had any place, that gives WAR HORSE its resonance. For some reason, we let animal narratives take us to raw emotional places from which we often shield ourselves when it comes to human stories. Music plays a key role in WAR HORSE, with music and songs being written and adapted for the production by Adrian Sutton and John Tams. The music helps to break up the action, while one song - a tailored version of Horatius Bonar's hymn "Only Remembered" - reaffirms the keen sense of purpose and passion in the play.

Originally directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris for the West End and Broadway productions of the play, the team responsible for staging WAR HORSE in South Africa is headed up by Alex Sims. Along with a company that has been touring with the show for more than a year, Sims maintains the sense of emotional immediacy for which WAR HORSE has become known, the actors being put through their paces to bring the broadly drawn characters in the piece to life.

Richard Vorster in WAR HORSE
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

The "people", as they are called in the playbill, come and go quickly, but the many characters are vividly depicted by the actors. Lee Armstrong makes a sympathetic Albert, his coming of age reflected neatly as the play progresses. Other standout performances come from Karen Henthorn (who portrays Albert's mother, Rose, as a pragmatic woman with incredible emotional integrity), David Taylor (a sympathetic turn as a young soldier that Albert meets in France), Sean McKenzie (brimming with earthy comedy as Sergeant Thunder) and Martin Wenner (who gives a human face to the German soldiers). That said, WAR HORSE is a true ensemble piece and a great deal of its efficacy comes from the ability of its cast to work together in performing the play.

A team of seventeen puppeteers breathe life into the horses on stage, twelve of whom (Thomas Gilbey, Richard Vorster, Peter Twose, Michael Humphreys, John Leader, Tom Norman, Andrew Keay, Tom Larkin, Suzanne Nixon, Oliver Grant, Joe Darke and Linford Johnson) play Joey and Topthorn in rotation, three of whom (Rebecca Killick, Alex Moran and Helen MacFarlane) play Joey as a foal and two of whom (Tim Lewis and Peter Ash) play one of the other horses on the battlefield. Working together seamlessly as head, heart and hind, there is a wonderful sense of spontaneity in each group's performances. Joseph Richardson also wheels about a testy goose who is a firm favourite with audiences each time he appears.

Joseph Richardson as the Goose in WAR HORSE
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

The design of WAR HORSE is beautifully stark in scenery and rich in costume, with William Fricker and Johanna Coe seeing to Raw Smith's original designs for this production. Smith also created drawings that wash a screen shaped like a piece of paper torn from a sketchbook. Animated by 59 Productions and programmed for this production by video associate Jonathan Lyle, the projections help to establish the fluidly shifting settings in the play. WAR HORSE is evocatively lit by Paule Constable, her design carried out here by lighting associate Tom Snell.

WAR HORSE, to quote the author of the novel upon which the book is based, is 'a story of reconciliation and reunion' transformed into 'an anthem for peace' in its stage production. A reflection of a time gone by, it is distressing to see that the most significant change in warfare over the past one hundred years is how it has become easier and easier for human beings to fight one another. Economically driven warmongering has replaced any honour that standing up for an ideal might one have had and advanced weaponry distances the action of pushing a button from its consequences on the ground. While it is a wonderful piece of theatre, the reason that this story about the First World War remains relent today is heart-rending. Perhaps one day we can create the kind of peace that would make us proud to be "only remembered by what we have done."

WAR HORSE opened at The Teatro at Montecasino in Fourways, Johannesburg on 22 October where it ran until 30 November 2014. The current season at the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town runs until 4 January 2015

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