Joey (Brad Cook, Bryan Hindle, Caden Douglas) and Emilie (Addison Holley). Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Stunning, Emotional, Amazing
by Dave Ross
As I stepped out of the Princess of Wales Theatre on King Street last night, the idea of composing a review of the production I had just seen seemed an impossibility. What was there to say? I was literally gobsmacked at the theatricality of the production I’d just seen. The first thought that came to mind was that War Horse is the most powerful and compelling piece of theatre I’ve seen to date.
The story of War Horse is a simple one, adapted from the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo. The Narracott family purchases Joey, a young foal. The youngest Narracott, Albert falls in love with Joey breaking him in and adapting him to life on a farm, and all seems well and good until the First World War intervenes. After Joey is sold to the British Army to pay off his family's debts, Albert rushes to the front line in France in an effort to find his four-legged friend. The story is a cathartic one, whose scenes of horror and despair are as moving as its sentimental and uplifting conclusion.
These creations are amazing to behold—I was reminded of the feeling of awe I experienced the first time I saw a horse as a child.
Central to the production (and well-publicized) are the horse puppets, designed by the Handspring Puppet Company out of South Africa. These creations are amazing to behold—I was reminded of the feeling of awe I experienced the first time I saw a horse as a child. They are truly magnificent, brought to life though the flicking of their tails, the wagging of their ears, and the odd impatient step, rendered skillfully by a cast of puppeteers. “Puppets” can hardly do these creations justice due to their exceptional realism. The puppets are also also machine-like in their construction, perhaps as a nod to the part these animals play in the war machine. There are other puppets as well, such as birds and a territorial goose, all rendered in this same aesthetic.
Designer Rae Smith carries this machine-like feel through the entire production. The set, while minimalist, allows the audience to travel from the fields of Devon to the trenches of France with the simplest of changes. Lighting, designed by Paule Constable, is key to the production and evokes emotional changes and tensions between the characters, while also portraying some of the horrors of trench warfare. A great deal of music, composed by Adrian Sutton, is used and is presented in tandem with songs by songmaker John Tams. While one could quibble that the orchestral soundtrack is pre-recorded, the tone of the music is very cinematic and helps to propel the story. John Tams’s songs are skillfully performed by violinist Melanie Doane and Tatjana Cornij on the accordion. While the all-Canadian cast is excellent, a special mention is due to 11-year-old Addison Holley as Emilie, who manages to convey so much in such a small role. Her performance was one of the most nuanced of the entire play.
There is a great deal of very difficult material, and parts of the play are literally gut-wrenching.
While this play is adapted from a children’s book, I would suggest that parents think strongly about taking any person younger than 12 years of age. There is a great deal of very difficult material, and parts of the play are literally gut-wrenching. I have only two criticisms of this production. Firstly, the cast could benefit from some time with a dialect coach. Many of the accents are strained, sloppy, or imprecise, with some of the German characters sounding nearly English. Secondly, a great deal of the dialogue is shouted, keeping it all on the same emotional level. As a result, some moments of tenderness get lost amidst the din. However, these are small things, and cannot possibly sully such an amazing production.
Mirvish’s production of War Horse, running at the Princess of Wales until June 30, is unsurpassed by anything else I have seen. From the excellent staging to the immersive soundscape to the puppets, this show is a feast for the senses, will tug at your heartstrings, and likely leave you with at least a few tears in your eyes. Productions of this calibre are rare. Check your calendars, and make time to see War Horse. You will not be disappointed.
Also: Listen to Episode 29 of This Is The CPC for Dave Ross's Off The Cuff Review of War Horse, the book (also available on iTunes)