War Horse, Birmingham Hippodrome - review with pictures
The National Theatre’s acclaimed West End play, War Horse, has thundered back onto the stage at Birmingham’s Hippodrome for a second time.
This epic tale of friendship and loss has consistently broken records since its debut in 2007 and was most notably adapted for the big screen by Steven Spielberg.
Set in a pastoral Britain against the backdrop of a brewing Second World War, it sets the scene in an almost whimsical, earthy way.
A young and impressionable Albert is gifted a headstrong foal with whom he forms an exceptional bond.
This is all shattered, however, when the horse is later sold to the Cavalry and shipped to France during the war’s outbreak.
Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, this rings true to many events that surrounded this terrible time.
Indeed around eight million horses died as a direct result of the war, especially in the early stages such as the Battle of Marne in 1914.
Many of which were put down in heavy artillery whilst serving on the front line before the days of trench warfare.
Given that the original book took the unusual route of being narrated from the horse’s perspective, this production uses many imaginative methods to stay true to this device.
While the emotions of this horrific war are well-trodden focal point of many of our history lessons and literary identity, the life-size horse puppets are clearly a huge draw for this particular yarn.
The Handspring Puppet Company employs incredible skill in the creation of these props but it’s the choreography that provides the magic.
The actors playing the part of the war horse achieved a sense of polyphony that is spectacle in itself.
Three voices all blend together to create a synthesis that is three-dimensional as it is acute.
Along with the fluidity of the mechanics, all three operators create a smoke screen bringing the animals to a living, breathing reality.
One would be forgiven for forgetting this this a woven wooden shell adorned with cloth, revealing the tortured nature of their souls.
Time was held captive during parts where limbs cascade to the ground in a riotous gallop before settling back into real time.
Throughout, each movement was juxtaposed against a projected backdrop to provide context to each scene.
Clearly influenced by Japanese line art and abstract Escher-like patterns, raining mortar shells fell from the sky onto bloodied fields where the actors played out the scene.
Other props were used sparingly and the interaction almost touched on the delicacy and intent of contemporary dance.
This gave a sense of energy that seasoned cinematic directors yearn for.
Depth of field, gained through the clever use of space and lighting provided an expansive backdrop of which this terrible war was fought.
All throughout the production is guided with power and clarity by a poignant brass section, punctuated with the pitch perfect tones of folk musician Bob Fox, who provides a poetic narration, behind the veil of traditional, albeit, gritty folk.
The flawless puppetry doubtlessly makes this performance exceptional.
Every twitch of the ear, flick of the tail and beat of the hooves achieves the impossible of bringing emotion into what would otherwise be inanimate.
But while the puppets are clearly a big draw for this acclaimed theatrical event, it is clearly a sum of all its parts.
The subtlety of each and every movement, sound and nuance can only bring you closer to remembering those who were killed.
War Horse is unforgettable story is of a long lost innocence that time left behind for good.
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