National Theatre / Handspring Puppet Theatre, War Horse

Review in Issue 21-2 | Summer 2009

Gathered in the bar pre-show are a typical West End audience of middle-class families and well-turned-out older couples. Entering the auditorium, we see an untypical (for the West End) bare stage with an earthy floor, the only décor a backdrop that looks like a strip of paper torn from a giant book (onto which ‘the scenery’ is projected: delicate line drawings of a Devon village; cross-hatched fields of war; shadow animations of advancing armies).

Enter the performers, a team of actors/musicians/puppeteers who eloquently and efficiently bring us a tale of two horses, told using all the tricks of the physical/devised theatre trade. Thus, a row of men holding sticks becomes a horse pen; a sea crossing is denoted by miniature boats danced across the stage; and paper birds fly above our heads at the end of bendy sticks. The birds are OK, but they aren’t a patch on the goose, a very wonderful push-along puppet-on-a-stick. And then there’s the horses…

The horses, created by the renowned Handspring Puppet Theatre, working with Mervyn Millar and a team of British puppeteers, have won the heart of everyone who has seen the show. Beautifully manipulated, they are the essence of horsey-ness. The scene where the horses are sent onto the battlefield is one of the most poignant pieces of visual theatre you are likely to encounter. As each horse falls, its operators roll to the ground slowly, moving away to leave a heap of woody carcasses.

What is most extraordinary about seeing this show in this environment is witnessing the ‘arrival’ of physical/ visual theatre into the mainstream.

A battle is won.

Presenting Venue
Date Seen
  1. Mar 2009

This article in the magazine

Issue 21-2
p. 32