Thursday, 10 January 2013

War Horse Review, Melbourne: Spectacle & Imagination

You've no doubt heard of the theory of persistence of vision, by which the brain threads together images in order to see a smoothly unified world.

Something similar is at work in theatre, I think, where the audience mentally melds non-realistic sets and bold acting into a vibrant, living universe (which might be why stage productions projected later on a screen seem flat).

This wonderful imaginative collaboration between audience and performers is cranked up to 11 by War Horse: a story of the bond between the boy and his horse, which is broken and reforged amid the horror of World War I.

The main drawcard of the show is its complex puppetry, involving full-sized horses which are operated by people within and beside their frames. These are simple marvellous; although the operators are clearly visible, the horses are entirely credible.


This is partly down to design - the horses are supremely flexible, being able to twitch their ears and tails, and move their heads in complex and subtle ways.

Credit must also be ladled on the operators, who imbue their mounts with both small and large details (including sound effects) which make it easy to believe in them. Though counter-intuitive, dressing the puppeteers in period costume rather than all-black works beautifully, and demonstrates a trust in the audience's imagination.

The puppetry and stagecraft are worth the hefty price of a ticket alone, a reminder of how theatre as spectacle can involve more than Hollywood-style special effects on stage.

The story itself is more problematic. Being derived from a 1980s children's book, it's populated with characters formed from broad cultural stereotypes, including larger than life village folk, bluff officers, naive but likeable young Tommies, they're-just-like-us enemy soldiers, etc.

Albert, the boy who pursues his horse to the battlefields of France, is so broadly portrayed that he comes across as a bit simple (but as the character can't read, perhaps that's the idea).

It seems a story pitched at children. But the theatre this night is packed with adults, and the war scenes are so impressively terrifying that I'd hesitate to take a young child along. With tickets ranging from $80 to $130, it'd be a pricey family night out in any case.

Having said that, if you had a kid over, say, ten years old who you wanted to introduce to the imaginative power of theatre, I couldn't think of a better example than War Horse to take them to.


All up, War Horse is a tour de force of puppetry and spectacle, if lacking in plot and character complexity. As with the earlier Lion King stage production, it's a fine example of the ability of theatre to transcend the literal and take a popular story to new creative heights. 

War Horse continues at the Arts Centre Melbourne to 10 March 2013. Bookings online.