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Puppets take over the National Theatre

November 21, 2007

For the first time ever, the magic of real-size puppets has slipped in every corner of The National Theatre’s Olivier Auditorium with the first performances of Warhorse. This family epic, set on the First World War and based on former Children Laureate Michael Morpurgo’s homonym novel, has shown Londoners that puppet theatre is not an art of the past.

The book, adapted to theatre by Nick Stafford, explores the essential relationship between human beings and animals through the story of Albert, a sixteen year-old boy that enlists in the army to find his horse and protect him against crossfire.

However, Stafford’s version of Warhorse goes way beyond that, highlighting the often overlooked role that animals played in the Great War and inviting the audience to reflect upon the feeling of absurdity and devastation that war leaves in its wake.

With the same care with which Gepetto created Pinocchio, the puppeteers taking part in Warhorse manage to give some pieces of cane and translucent fabric a soul of their own and transform them into “Joey” the horse, the character that steal the audience’s attention throughout the play.

Joey carries the mark of designers Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler. Their involvement in this play, co-directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris represents the first collaboration of the South African firm Handspring Puppet Company with The National Theatre.

Although, surprisingly, the puppeteers don´t try to melt into the background, the expressivity and naturalness embedded in the animal’s movements does make you forget that there is someone behind each gesture.

A month after Warhorse’s world premiere at The National Theatre, an attentive public occupied virtually every seat of the Olivier Theatre last night and applauded enthusiastically.

During the performance, the fluency of Joey’s movements was mirrored by the balance and flexibility shown by the cast. The characters, supervised by Toby Sedgwick, engaged in seemingly effortless transitions that led to symmetric compositions. All those changes were introduced rather naturally thanks to the minimalist scenery.

The acting, in some cases, was all but minimalist. Although the attitudes displayed by characters like the boys’ parents were clearly meant to provoke laughter and lighten the mood in the middle of an otherwise sad story, Luke Treadaway took the drama a bit too far while performing as Albert.

By contrast, Angus Wright hit the mark as German commander Friederich Muller hit the mark. Wright, who has already participated in five previous plays staged at The National, gave his performance a range of nuances that revealed the human side of his character.

The most relevant moments of Warhorse, especially the ones charged with a greater amount of symbolic or physical violence, were stressed with a meaningful white light that stood out in the soft amber glow that tinted the stage.

The classical music composed by Adrian Sutton also played a very important part in Warhorse, as it amplified the meaning of the speeches but also added descriptive nuances to the situations and silently conveyed the attitudes of the characters.

After a performance like last night’s, the spectator leaves the Olivier Auditorium with the impression that Warhorse is skillfully executed. Overall, the play is entertaining and instructive, and it manages to pull some emotional strings.

However, the excess of sentimentalism that dominates the performance and overflows the stage just before the curtains go down might be seen as a flaw by an adult audience too cynic and too exposed through the media to the horrors of war to believe in a wartime happy ending. Warhorse will run in reps at The National Theatre over the Christmas season.

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