Is Seeing Believing?
In October, 2007 when the National Theatre premiered War Horse, based on a novel by children's writer Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford and performed in association with Handspring Puppet Company, you can perhaps understand why, thinking it was intended as a Christmas offering for kids, I gave it a miss.
Not the first mistake I ever made; but, now that I've seen its transfer to the West End at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane, one of the most foolish. War Horse is as theatrical a production as I've seen since Black Watch - which I mean as high praise (though I know these are precisely the grounds my friend John Rockwell gave for disliking the physically demanding play about the disbanding of the Scottish regiment).
War Horse is every bit as physical as Black Watch: in both most of the actors double as gymnasts and near-acrobats. But War Horse began as a tale of the fighting in the First World War seen from the point of view of a cavalry horse, Joey, in the staged version the two principal horses, the bay stallion (or brown - his mane was a bit too abstract to judge this) Joey, and the slightly larger, equally beautiful, grey roan, Tophorn, are giant puppets, each of which requires three men to manipulate. So expert are the puppeteers, so well observed (à la Eadweard Muybridge's analytical photographs of horses' gaits) their movements, that within minutes the puppeteers' presence is forgotten. Anyone who has ever spent ten minutes looking at a horse will recognise the characteristic ear movements, mane-shaking and even snorting and grazing behaviour of these extraordinary cubist/realist creatures constructed of bentwood armatures, paper and leather by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler. To see one of the young actors actually leap on the back of one of these magnificent beasts is breathtaking.
As for their credibility, it's hard to know whether to credit more the directors, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, or the "director of movement and horse choreography," Toby Sedgwick. There are other puppets, particularly a splendid goose, with flapping wings and ingenious wheeled feet. The rest of the principal honours go to "designer/drawings," Rae Smith - for the chief means of conveying information, dates, whereabouts, whether on land or sea, is a 25-metre wide projection screen above the revolving stage, which is in the shape of a strip of paper we see ripped from a sketchbook near the end of the play.
The story is one of the oldest known to boys, the tale of a lad who bonds with a colt - for life. Aged six or seven, I read dozens of these (in the intervals between riding lessons). The only twist in this tale is that the horse, Joey, is sold to the military by the boy, Albert's, wretched father and sent to be an officer's mount in the WWI cavalry charges in northern France; which, of course, results in the slightly underage boy running away to enlist in the Devon Yeomanry himself, so that he will be sent to the Front where he can look for his horse. In the stage version the man gets his horse, and lives happily ever after; whereas in the true story upon which Morpurgo based his novel, the horse stayed in France and was sold for meat. This is about the only respect in which this is a play for kids. The night I was there, the fifty per cent of the audience that was under twelve seemed to deal with the violence of the stage action by adopting the attitude their parents brought to watching Tom and Jerry cartoons.
For grown-ups, the real pleasures of this production are visual - not just the muscular ballet of the actors, puppets and their handlers - but Rae Smith's visual echoes of the artistic movements of the era, from Cubism to Futurism and especially Vorticism. It's stunning, and because of the visual toughness, doesn't come across as sentimental.
How I wish I could also say this about Peter Hall's English Touring Theatre's production of the Feydeau farce, "Where There's a Will," which I saw at the enterprising Oxford Playhouse. Designer Christopher Woods's gorgeous, good-taste, off-white and ivory Art Nouveau sets are its chief merit. Nicki Frei's adaptation with its calculated anachronisms of idiom and slang, struck me as witty and serviceable. But why oh why does Sir Peter get his perfectly competent, good-looking cast of six to speak their lines so slowly that the jokes seem to be stretched out until they shrivel up and die from over-exposure? All Feydeau's farces, as Sir P points out in his elegant introduction to the programme, are about sex, and about people at the end of their tether, who are always in crisis, and have no time to think before they speak. "We learn as much in the theatre by laughing as by crying," he concludes. Yeah, but the funniness and wit is in the speed with which the dialogue unfolds. No laughing, no learning; and as in all comedy, timing is of the essence.
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