I have perceived much beauty
In the hoarse oaths that kept
our courage straight; Heard
music in the silentness of duty;
Found peace where shell-
storms spouted reddest spate
In the true spirit of equine excellence the current production of Warhorse is a magnificent hybrid, a thoroughbred of theatrical stagecraft that is moving, humorous and vastly entertaining as life size puppets take the stage and make us forget, for over two full hours, that human beings have anything at all to do with the theatre. The visible puppet handlers very quickly disappear into our imagination as these gorgeous creatures, with the famed Joey in the lead, display incredible nuance of both sound and movement as they make their way through a harrowing world war one narrative about a boy’s love for his four legged friend.The ensemble cast delivers powerful yet emotionally reserved performances that may heat up as the run progresses. In the lead role as Albert Narracott, Alex Furber has some fine moments as he struggles to keep his beloved Joey from becoming part of a devastating war machine. The very delicate balance between a kind of reserved yet powerful naturalistic acting, existing alongside the meticulous movements of the horses that the production requires has not yet reached its stride for the ensemble as moments of underplayed mechanical connection between actor and puppet occur. Nevertheless, the overall mise en scene is a brilliantly realized spectacle that well serves the epic quality of the text.
More than a dozen puppet handlers display impeccable expertise as they move seamlessly across the stage with five beautifully designed horses. Joey’s luminous rusty brown tones contrast effectively with the darker hue of Topthorn, setting up a dramatic interplay between the two lead puppets from the outset.
There is a very brief homo-social moment of heroic camaraderie between Furber and Patrick Kwok-Choon as David Taylor. In a trench positioned at the edge of the stage they share their hopes and desires about life after battle. Both actors create a strong slightly comic connection as Albert dreams of his horse and David dreams of his beloved back home across the channel. A later scene where Albert describes his wartime buddy as “handsome” becomes a light moment of the kind of typical, teasingly homo-social heroism WWI narratives are filled with. But this is a family show, picked up by Spielberg for the film version, and promptly de-puppeted and romanticized in the way only Disney can manage, giving Hollywood yet another example of feel good trauma for the movie masses.
Projections of rural landscapes moving from England to France over the course of the war years aid spectators in locating the drama at hand within specific time frames. A standout performance by Addison Holley as Emilie occurs in the later scenes as she sweeps onto the stage and renders the child-like trauma of her war torn character, and subsequent connection with Joey, with great ease and an immense powerful charm.
Onstage music by Melanie Doane (violin) and Tatjana Cornji (accordion) provides a strong cohesive framework that moves the play along, with beautiful narrative vocals by both musicians that poetically punctuate the action at hand.
The story of Warhorse may not be all that interesting to anyone looking for a more unique, revisionist account of what great wars might involve, but the visual spectacle of Warhorse is breathtaking.
I cried a tear, or two.
Runs through Sept at the Princess of Wales Theatre