Tuesday, January 13, 2009

War Horse

What a way to start the year - traipsing from Brussels to London, 91 students in tow, to visit the Imperial War Museum in the morning and see the National Theatre's production of War Horse in the afternoon.

Over the years, I've seen many many plays, in all sorts of venues and all sorts of styles. I can think of all sorts of standout performances, I've had wonderful entrancing times in the theatre, but War Horse went straight into the top five or so of theatrical memories. It was exhilarating, heartbreaking, wild, and one of those rare occasions when the adaptation transcends the source material. Morpurgo's book is a lovely book, but the complete physical experience of the play is so visceral, so vivid and so extraordinarily focused in performance that it becomes much more than a story about a horse surviving World War One. I don't think I've ever seen a cast work so fluidly and effectively to create real art: every single person on stage totally gave themselves over to the piece.

Of course, there is the technical magnificence of the horses - extraordinary pieces of engineering, matched by the physical labours of the actors manipulating the heads, the hindquarters and the forelegs while making utterly believable horse sounds - the chill of the screams of horses cut down by machine gun fire will not leave me.

In addition, there were wonderfully light comic touches, and the changes made to the plot (scenes cut and backstory added) were not lightly executed, but carefully thought through. The main scene setter was a shred of screen across the back of the stage, used to project the wonderful drawings of Rae Smith, who designed the set with Handspring, the company which created the puppets - although the horses are more like sculptures than puppets.

Many of the plays I've seen in the last ten years have been at the National, and their visual inventiveness is one of the great pleasures of going to the theatre there. War Horse was one of the richest in terms of sheer spectacle. Having now read the reviews my students have written about the production, I feel vindicated in hauling them untimely from their beds for their journey to the western front. War Horse is a glorious endorsement of all that is best in theatre, a wondrous example of when everything falls into place and makes magic.

The play is sold out at the National, but is transferring to the West End - booking until the end of September. Prices are up from the National's incredibly reasonable 10-45/seat, but it is worth seeing this piece at any price.

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