War Horse is a show that comes with its triumph trailing before it. Everybody has heard of the famous production by the National Theatre in Britain which became first a runaway hit for the company, then a big West End transfer and finally a huge international franchise seen in the US and Canada and filmed by Steven Spielberg. War Horse is the one with the extraordinary puppetry that allows for the spectacular simulation of the movements of horses terribly deployed in the carnage of the Western Front in the first world war. As an exhibition of the marvellous movement, at once illusionistic and stylised, of the horses themselves, this recycling is all it’s cracked up to be. If you’re eight or ten years old it will thrill you to the back teeth. It’s also true that this production, restaged with a scratch Australian cast by Drew Barr, associate director of the Lincoln Centre War Horse in New York, gives us the imaginative magnificence and the overarching design of the original production by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris with Rae Smith’s sets and costumes, Paul Constable’s lighting and some slashingly brilliant animation by 59 Productions. But this is not the National Theatre of Britain we’re seeing and, in everything but the brilliant simulation and accompanying plangency of the heart-stopping puppetry, very far from it.
It was a New Year’s Eve opening with all the blood, sweat and tears that can involve. It was dumb of us not to realise the city would be blocked off from Collins Street (even at 7.15) but it was absurd to have to jump out of the cab and rush through the madding crowd only to face a five-minute lock-out and the most bizarrely on-time first night in living memory. Eventually we were ushered to our seats in Row G which were the usual opera house approximation of mid-stalls (i.e. about 12 rows back in practice) and no great shakes as a position for the press to see a show which was imperfectly lit (in terms of the transfer), rather broad and undistinguished in much of the performance and with faltering diction and haphazardly approximate accents. In a paradoxical way the performance might have been better glimpsed from the back stalls or the dress where the stage picture would have been a massive distanced totality and where the rough gesticulation of the approximation to an epical style of acting by the often raw cast might have seemed more apt.
At the show there were plenty of well-known figures, scattered like raisins and plums in the seasonal suet of establishment interlopers. Nick Cave was there with a couple of little kids no doubt intent on the gee gees. Magda Szubanski was looking fiercely concentrated and Josh Thomas, light-suited, might have been a boy who had made it back home to Tipperary. John Saffran, in contrast, had the fierce look of one of the Kaiser’s Prussians while Jennifer Hansen was a reminder that most news was not as grim as this just as her husband Alan Fletcher, veteran of Neighbours, underlined the ways in which entertainment could be light and heartwarming without this burden of catastrophe.
Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, brilliantly adapted in broad strokes by Nick Stafford for the National, is the story of a farmboy who falls in love with a beautiful horse bought by his dodgy dad, which is in turn sold for a princely sum at the outbreak of the Great War, thus triggering the boy’s underage enlistment.
The boy, needless to say, loses the horse. At one point it falls into the hands of a decent German Cavalry officer who, in turn, tries to pass himself off as a medical orderly. The story has the brilliant schematism and the ongoing breathless quality of the best children’s adventure writing, though in this case there is also the burden of the sorrow and pity of the worst of all fighting wars so that War Horse is a rather complex take on a simple and terrible thing: it brings to a point of poignant and sentimental catharsis the idea of the suffering and possible death of a loved animal through the eyes of a tenderhearted boy.
The love of animals is shared by Englishman and German alike. There is a beautiful and dramatic moment when the camaraderie and fellowship of the war fought by two great humanist nations is dramatised by a heads and tails toss-up in no man’s land: winner takes horse.
It’s a beautiful tear-jerking story and its soft-focus tale of the war in which men died like cattle is very well told through the fable of the beautiful god-like creature which should be the sporting messenger of kings caught in a world of barbed wire and gunshot wounds of mercy.
Unlike a fair fraction of audiences, we had seen Spielberg’s version in advance either of this colonial mock-up or the lordly British stage original that had given the Hollywood moviemeister his script. Spielberg, however, does War Horse flawlessly, with great compositional majesty and effortless command of tempo.
Those qualities are lacking in this Australian production. Nicholas Bell and Natasha Herbert do well among the more seasoned performers though Cody Fern as the boy is pretty much on one note and so are large numbers of the young, not very well selected cast — it’s hard to see how any thorough audition process could have yielded quite this poverty — and the upshot is a group of sometimes literally, more often histrionically weedy young chaps who look as if they’ve never been anywhere near the playing fields of Eton or the ploughfields of Somerset, let alone the beerhalls and the duelling clubs of Heidelberg.
None of this detracts from the puppetry that brings the horses to life, which is done with great magic and skill by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones according to Toby Sedgwick’s breathtaking choreography of genius. It’s great stuff, it stops the heart and mists the eyes and every child deserves to see it: it’s liable to be the start of a love affair with the theatre for them if they do.
In other respects it’s a pity the Arts Centre didn’t go the whole hog and bring out the National Theatre. Either that or get Marianne Elliott herself to audition and rehearse the best Australian cast that could be found. That was what was done with Billy Elliot when Stephen Daldry did that Elton John musical with an élan which made Australia look like one of the civilised centres of the earth, rather than a colonial outpost. The Melbourne first night in 2008 also sported a very good New Year’s Eve party, with the right number of people in the appropriate venue of the Great Hall of the National Gallery.
War Horse is at the Melbourne Arts Centre until 3 March.