Wales Millennium Centre
Please note as an employee of the Wales Millennium Centre, the following review is my critical response as a member of Young Critics.
In modern day Wales, we became transported to pre First World War Devon on the Donald Gordon Stage at the Wales Millennium Centre. The story of War Horse sees the relationship between a boy and a horse his poor farmer father buys, landing the family struggling for money. The show sees the progression of both Joey the horse from young to old, with his love and devotion to his rearer, young boy Albert and the struggling life they both encounter when war breaks out. Joey is sold and transported throughout the lands during war and Albert strives to find him and bring him back home.
The stage professed a simplistic staging, beginning with only a large screen in the shape of a ripped piece of paper, hanging across the stage. This screen shows animations throughout the piece, from setting scenes including a Devon village to trench life to dates and places to put the scenes in context. Additional staging including door and window frames and bunting added a subtle element. The production is given a earthly and rural colour through lighting and costume, adding to the time setting. Folk music with fantastic solo and ensemble work is used throughout, with accompanied music for crescendos, helping to set the scenes and atmosphere.
This subtleness is soon evident as to its use when a beautiful folk song climaxes to the change of Joey from a baby to a grown horse, leaping from the back darkness of the stage and lit up in all its glory. The puppetry alone is astounding. The Puppeteers have caught every movement and inflection that these creatures posses. At times of crucial narrative, small glances at the horses throughout the show can show that even small movements such as their breath and small twitches are performed fantastically. Puppetry does not only stop here – the use of flying birds, large crows, a comical and purposefully annoying geese and even people are all executed with great knowledge of how these creatures move and react, as well as how the puppets of humans react well at the appropriate moments, such as being blown off a horse to the ground. How these puppets have been put together is also mind boggling – the urge to create horses with hair and other elements have been completely ignored and this is fantastic – this adds to the overall aesthetics of the piece but also give a wordless impact on the audience.
As if this wasn’t amazing enough, as, it could be possible just to watch the puppets for an entire show, the acting is also fantastic. The contrast of the Devon folk to the soldiers, even to other human encounters such as a French mother and daughter and the German army are all executed well and with obvious differences. These differences help the characters in their emotions and situations, at points even bringing an element of sympathy to the German side, arguing with our own historical background and what we see in British and American movies. Each characters interaction with the horses shows human compassion and lets you also fall in love with these creatures. However, Albert and other characters with significant changes of accent were, at times, difficult to decipher. Whether this is due to trouble with articulation through accents, the theatre space or both, some sound and vocality was lost, leaving gaps in the storyline.
Favourite parts (a part from the puppets) of the show were created with sound, music and lighting at amazing moments. Slow motion, freeze frames and such were complimented by these elements and gave the piece a sense of grandeur and the feeling of something really special. With not a single dry eye in the house (including my sobbing self!) at the (good) rollercoaster of emotion that is War Horse and ending with a standing ovation, this production is everything and more you want from such a fantastic storyline and theatrical piece.