As good as it gets: War Horse

A charge scene. Photograph by Brinkhoff Mogenburg.

A charge scene. Photograph by Brinkhoff Mogenburg.

War Horse is unequivocally the show of a lifetime: if you don’t see another theatre production ever again in your life, see this one. It brings together all the unmitigated magic of hand hewn material constructed with sheer love, courage and self-belief; the four brief months in which you can see this South African-born production on local soil is too rare a chance to pass up.

From the moment the stage lights go up until the finale, this beautifully crafted masterpiece will keep you riveted to your seat. The three hour duration of this tale of the love of a horse, the Great War, loyalty and betrayal zips past so quickly, you don’t have time to lose focus, but you do get to fall in love with an oeuvre of puppetry by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler that brings base materials to sentient, real life.

Joey is a horse swayed and bruised by the vagaries of humanity. He’s auctioned; becomes the butt of a bet; and the apple of a young boy’s eye. He’s also the pivot to one of the most compelling and direct reflections on the First World War staged in this country in the last two decades. Replete with its reflection on trench warfare; the bravado of young men engaging in a war the likes of which had never before been experienced in the world; the horror of those same men, a couple of years down the line; the surreal irony of the no-man’s land and parents’ sense of helplessness in the face of conscription; it’s a deeply thoughtful piece, told with a deft hand and a beautiful sense of horse choreography.

From the moment the young foal puppet is walked on stage, the puppeteers become invisible. This model of work is not along the lines of any Japanese traditions where the operators wear black. Rather, there is no contrivance at all. Dressed in period costumes, the men and women that give these beautiful puppets life handle them with such delicacy and sensitivity that they disappear in the face of the fulsome presence of each puppet, from the horses to the birds to the tank.

The work is further enhanced by what appears to be a torn swatch of paper across the upper reaches of the set. It reflects projected charcoal and pencil drawings which meld so beautifully into the narrative, the effect really takes your breath away. Further to that, languages and dialects are dealt with with a sense of brilliance which never compromises the legibility of the work, which is woven through with Irish ballads, humour and sadness in careful and succinct measure.

Never teetering into the realms of twee-ness, War Horse is a hard-hitting, gripping tale of love, hate and ownership. It is intensely focused on the internal dynamics of the puppets but soars beyond your wildest expectations in the magic cast by the interface of performer and puppet. The creators of this work are magicians. Nay, gods.

  • War Horse is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo and adapted for stage by Nick Stafford in association with the Handspring Puppet Company. It is directed by Alex Sims and features a set design and drawings by Rae Smith and William Fricker; puppets by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones; lighting by Paule Constable and Karen Spahn; choreography by Toby Sedgwick; music by Adrian Sutton; and sound design by Christopher Shutt and John Owens. It performs at the Teatro, Montecasino complex until November 30, and at Artscape Opera House in Cape Town from December 5 until January 4.
  • It is performed by Matt Addis, Lee Armstrong, Peter Ash, Emily Aston, Ashleigh Cheable, Joe Darke, David Fleeshman, Adam Foster, Bob Fox, Jason Furnival, Thomas Gilbey, Oliver Grant, Karl Haynes, Karen Henthorn, Steven Hillman, Michael Humphreys, Linford Johnson, Andrew Keay, Rebecca Killick, Tom Larkin, John Leader, Tim Lewis, Harry Lobek, Helen Macfarlane, Sean McKenzie, Alex Moran, Suzanne Nixon, Tom Norman, Joseph Richardson, Gavin Swift, Simeon Truby, Peter Twose, Richard Vorster, and Martin Wenner.

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