War Horse is cinematic in its grandeur yet theatrically intimate and confronting

After a false start a few years back, I was so pleased to hear that the West End and Broadway hit War Horse, from the National Theatre of Great Britain, was finally coming to Auckland.

Last night this spectacular show opened at the Civic Theatre and it’s as awe-inspiring as you’d expect and wish it to be. Magical puppetry brings horses to the stage alongside raw emotional performances, dramatic lighting and sound that thrusts the horrors of war to the forefront.

Starting in 1912, the story follows Joey, a foal who is bought as a farm horse by Ted Narracott and lovingly raised by his teenage son Albert. Their bond proves to be unbreakable despite the many obstacles put in their way- and Joey is one special horse.

As the Great War begins so does the draft for both horses and men. Ted, sees an opportunity to make a few quid and sells Joey to the cavalry behind Albert’s back and at only 16, Alert himself is too young to go along. His time fighting for king and country will have to wait a few years but there’s no doubt he’ll go on to search for his beloved equine pal.

Then begins Joey’s epic rollercoaster story alongside fellow army horse Topthorn. From galloping at frontline, to ambulance pulling, to draft horses, the two battle through and switch from English to German ownership during their course in the war. After a few years have passed, we follow the determined Albert as he too heads to war in a quest to find his beloved Joey.

From the moment Joey and Topthorn arrive in France, we’re confronted with the shocking and bleak violence of war. It’s eerie, disturbing and terrifying. Huge bombs, flashes and gunshots are sounded throughout and the fragility of life is very much highlighted as is the brutality that faced these ordinary English and German men who were put into such barbaric and frightening situations. If the end of the first act doesn’t leave you holding your breath and clutching your seat then no theatre ever will. It’s a dramatic and shocking sight that is heart-stopping theatrical perfection.

Joey is operated by three immensely skilled puppeteers who also provide uncanny sound effects – adding personality and realism to the character. As with a real living thing, Joey breathes, puffs and has little leg shifts and tail swishes. The puppet itself is a frame like mechanical structure which one could think might be too exposed or rudimentary to be believable but that construction allows for bending joints, a bouncing trot, ear wiggles and subtle head movements that really bring him to life. Cast members can even mount and have a ride on them. It’s truly mesmerising, and if you catch the horses eye you’d swear he was a live animal.

The puppeteers are very much in sight which shows just how powerful the representation of these animals are, it just doesn’t matter if you see them or not, the puppet is the star. This is also true of the more comedic turn taken by a farm goose, who is clearly wheeled onto the stage, but who definitely has a full personality of her own.

The set is simple with the aid of a large strip above the stage where animations are projected to help place the story. The cast, costumes and puppets provide all the atmosphere needed to conjure up scenes of a cosy Devon farm life or transport us to the devastation of No Man’s Land.

The cast, as one would expect from this level of production, are flawless. Albert, played by Danny Hendrix on opening night, gave a hugely emotive and highly spirited performance. And I enjoyed the transformative performance of Christopher Naylor who played German officer Friedrich Muller. Natalie Kimmerling as Emilie the French farm girl brought in some much-needed innocence and grounding of real folks wartime experiences. Ben Murray’s soothing and sometimes sombre musical narration also adds a layer of much-needed respite and reflection.

War Horse manages to depict both horrific violence, peace and the bond between man and beast like no other. It’s cinematic in its grandeur yet theatrically intimate and confronting. This is a must-see theatrical event for Auckland audiences.

War Horse is on at The Civic Theatre until 14 July.

Reviewed by Ingrid Grenar.