WAR HORSE ARRIVES IN BRISTOL FOR SOUTH WEST PREMIERE
The Bristol Hippodrome
Wednesday 14th January – Saturday 14th February 2015
The National Theatre’s hugely successful production of War Horse, based on Michael Morpurgo’s best-selling novel, had its much anticipated Bristol premiere at The Bristol Hippodrome on Wednesday.
War Horse is the powerful story of a young boy called Albert and his beloved horse, Joey, who is requisitioned to fight for the British in World War I. Caught in enemy crossfire, Joey ends up serving on both sides during the war before landing in No Man’s Land, while Albert, not old enough to enlist, embarks on a treacherous mission to find his horse and bring him home. A remarkable tale of courage, loyalty and friendship, at the heart of which is ground-breaking puppetry work by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, which brings breathing and galloping horses to life on stage.
A stiff legged colt appears at market and while I’m impressed by the authenticity of his equine sounds and movements, I’m initially aware of the presence of three puppeteers handling him.
Glimmers of puppeteering genius emerge when the skittish colt ventures over to eat oats from a metal bucket, but when he dramatically transforms into a handsome stallion (blink and you’ll miss it) and is mounted by a rider, the spectacular illusion is complete and the audience errupts into spontaneous applause.
Whilst we’re aware that the puppeteers are still there, the proud equine stance, clip-clopping hooves, flapping ears and swishing tail are so convincing, the visible human legs and hands pale into insignificance.
Having stumbled into a world where giant horses grace the stage of The Bristol Hippodrome, I’m reminded even more strongly of the tremendous skill of the puppeteers when, as they leave the body of a dying animal, the abandoned carcuss becomes eerily still, bringing to mind the horror of many thousands of horses lost in World War One. Along with many other audience members, tears are shed by my neighbour, a radio show presenter, who tells me afterwards that she keeps horses and is quite shocked to note that my own eyes are dry.
SET AND EFFECTS
The set changes smoothly and fluidly. A huge projection screen across the top of the stage is fashioned in the shape a page ripped from an artist’s sketchbook, with pencil drawings quickly transforming the setting from a landscape to a floating cloud; from the Devon countryside to a French battlefield.
A solitary door and suspended window drop into place before an ‘infinite’ black backdrop, creating a farm scene. Farmhands hold poles horizontally to create a fence.
Harsh ‘headlights’ directed towards the audience from the rear of the stage are used effectively to reinforce the impression of danger and tension.
During the enlisting scene where eligible men are persuaded to take the King’s Shilling and others encouraged to sell their horses for the war cause, a sequence of flashes and ‘frozen’ actors give the impression of a significant moment being captured for posterity.
It’s hard to choose a favourite scene as so many of them are effective but I found the macabre remains from the battlefield overlapping into the subsequent scene of village life particularly moving.
LAUGHTER & TEARS
Yes, there are both. As I mentioned before, a fair few tears were shed, but, perhaps more surprisingly, there was laughter too.
When Michael Morpurgo wrote the book he wanted to do so in a way that didn’t take sides and, like the meeting of the British and German troops at Christmas in “Oh what a lovely war”, in War Horse we experience a moment of truce as opposing sides rally to try to save the distressed horse, gravely injured by the dreaded barbed wire, stranded in no man’s land. The opposing solidiers’ stilted attempt at communication, each with no knowledge of the other’s language, exposes both the British soldier and his German enemy as ordinary men, with a theatre of half speech – half mime, providing levity and releasing the show’s tension for a while.
A flapping, honking goose which is speedily propelled around by means of a wheel instead of legs is also instantly able to turn the audience to laughter amidst the gruesome backdrop of war. The audience clearly appreciates this light relief as the goose receives one of the loudest rounds of applause at the end of the show!
That’s is a tricky one.
This is a story of war so not surprisingly there’s some bad language but some of it’s been tempered, such as “effing” rather than “f**cking”.
My ten and eight year old boys were so keen to see War Horse that they decided to buy their own tickets using Christmas money. As the theatre was full they weren’t sitting with me so I couldn’t keep an eye on their reactions. At times I was concerned that they’d be frightened by the loud noises and violence and I can’t help but wince on their behalf when I hear bad language in their presence, but my boys are no longer babies so I thought it best to ask their opinion on age suitability.
My ten year old found the death of horses disturbing and thought this wouldn’t be appropriate for younger children to see.
The eight year said it wasn’t scary for him but thought his six year old brother wouldn’t have liked the loud noises and probably would have found the storyline difficult to follow. I think he’s spot on. He and his older brother both came to see me perform in “Oh What a Lovely War” recently so they had some understanding of World War One, which was useful for this story.
Both boys said they enjoyed the show and would like to see it again in the future.
Michael Morpurgo has written over 100 books and was Children’s Laureate from 2003 to 2005. After the show we were lucky enough to meet him and he cheerily quizzed my ten year old book-worm on whether he’d read the book (he had) and signed their programmes! An amazing end to a fabulous night – and what a momento!
War Horse is a stunning production. The stage is interesting, scene changes are seamless and we’re led through a range of emotions. Dialogue is interspersed with songs and folk music but music isn’t the star of this show: the magnificent horses are. The puppetry is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. This is one of the best, if not the best show I’ve ever seen.
Virtually all tickets for every performance were sold before the show even opened but if you’re lucky enough to be able to get hold of a ticket, grab it with both hands! I highly recommend War Horse.
War Horse is produced by the National Theatre – www.warhorseonstage.com and will continue to be performed at the Bristol Hippodrome for a full month until 14 February 2015.
Wednesday 14th January – Saturday 14th February 2015
Monday – Saturday 7.30pm. Wednesday & Saturday 2.30pm.
No matinee: 14 January 2015.
Extra matinee: 15 January 2015.
£16.90 – £58.90
DISCLOSURE: I WAS GIVEN A TICKET BY THE NATIONAL THEATRE FOR THE PURPOSES OF THIS REVIEW. ALL OPINIONS ARE MY/OUR OWN.