War Horse Breathes to Life on Stage

A review by Brenda Daniels

The West End Production of War Horse, filmed and broadcast by National Theatre Live, will be screened at Cinema Nouveau in South Africa this month. The show is based on the book by Michael Morpurgo and set during World War I making the show’s release this year a particularly meaningful one as 2014 marks the war’s centenary.

War Horse is the touching story of Albert and his horse Joey. Raised by Albert and trained to plough on the family farm in Devon, Joey is sold into the British army and sent to France. Too late to stop the sale, heartbroken Joey joins the war in the faint hope of tracking down his beloved horse.

Brave Joey shows spirit and strength as he endures the hardships of fighting, as well as compassion to a fellow horse and a number of kind humans who come across his path. Joey even changes hands across enemy lines joining the war effort on the side of the Germans.

The story conveys a strong message of reconciliation, always featuring the beautiful horse as its heart.

What is remarkable about this multi-award-winning production is the amazingly realistic, life-size horse puppets. Manned by three people at a time, the puppeteers do a brilliant job of bringing their horse “shells” to life. Whinnying, neighing, snorting, stamping, galloping, rearing, tail swishing – everything a horse does these puppeteers do. And although the men and women handling the puppets are visible to the audience, it’s the horse you focus on; the humans do not detract from the story at all.

There is something else noteworthy: this stage production was done in association with the South African-based, award-winning Handspring Puppet Company.

If you think a stage show couldn’t possibly be as stirring or visually exciting as the film which is also based on the book, think again. The theatre methods used are so clever. Scenery splashed up on a “torn” screen to represent a sketch book, “pole” theatre (actors holding poles to define areas), uniquely choreographed movements and a revolving stage all work together to create an absorbing entertainment experience.

Although quite lengthy (two hours and 50 minutes including an intermission during which an interesting interview takes place) I urge theatre goers to watch this wonderful production.

War Horse releases at Cinema Nouveau in South Africa on 12 April for eight screenings only – 12, 16, 17, 19, 23 and 24 April at 7.30pm and on 13 and 20 April at 2.30pm in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town, and at Ster-Kinekor Blue Route Mall. The National Theatre Livescreening of War Horse will also mark the first theatre production to be broadcast in South Africa in Sony 4K, following the recent digital technology projection upgrade at all the Cinema Nouveau and Ster-Kinekor sites.

Two horses in the filmed stage production of War Horse (Source: Ster Kinekor)

Two horses in the filmed stage production of War Horse (Source: Ster Kinekor)

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