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Published January 18, 2020

Booms, puppets, cheers, and tears! – Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott’s production of the award-winning War Horse at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre was beyond spectacular with some of the best puppeteering and animatronic work for a stage production that Australia has ever seen.

Within only a few weeks o the film 1917 being named film of the year at the Oscars, War Horse (a play with a long and noble pedigree) is fitting into the zeitgeist of the times, reflecting an examination of life in World War One whilst exploring some of the acute sufferings of war that are not often mentioned in
textbooks. It is easy to see why this play is making the rounds again after being in Melbourne in 2013, and why, despite some difficulties in the vision, it is easy to see why this play will most likely be a success again.

Right off the bat this revival made some impressive choices with their actors – the cast all did stellar jobs interchanging from puppeteer to cast character seamlessly over the course of the play. The skill of the actors, especially Scott Miller (who played the long-suffering Albert Narracott) and Christopher Naylor (who played, among others, the kindly Friedrich Müller), to interact with the puppets as
though they were actual living beings was very impressive. Truly, it helped to suspend the disbelief that the props were not actually living beings, and allowed the audience to be swept away in the majesty of the world that Eliot has constructed for us.

Even if one dislikes war productions, one should attend just to see the horses. The puppet designers Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler (and the Handspring Puppet Company) have outdone themselves – it was easy to forget that this was a play and those were not real animals. Combined with the actor interactions and, the puppet direction of Jones and Kohler, and the incredible teamwork of the puppeteers themselves (whose numerous names fill out a page of the souvenir program) make the show.

Also, may the life of that goose puppet be a long and happy one.

The choice to have accents over speaking in German or French was an
interesting and pragmatic choice, one which meant that they did not need to find a very niche group of performers who were multilingual, whilst simultaneously not forcing the audience to read surtitles. The downside was that the actors then attempted (and generally succeeded) in replicating German and French accents on top of the different British accents present in the play, which was
distracting at times. One positive side effect though were the comic moments that were available for the audience when they spoke to each other in perfect English and then pretended to understand each other. Whilst that may have distracted from the more sombre and serious message of the play at times, it also helped break the tension and made the performance more enjoyable than having to
sit through a 3-hour slog of despair and suffering. So good choice, really.

It wasn’t all perfection. Minor issues with the sound balance meant that it became difficult to hear the actors at times, and there seemed to be confusion as to how loud some things (such as gunfire or explosions) ought to be. Hopefully that was  a teething problem. The use of slow motion was also a decision that probably could have been avoided, as it seemed to weaken the flow of the play and felt more akin to a movie scene rather than a stage production, which meant that the medium struggled with these directional decisions. Although these moments did assisted with the gravitas is some situations, overall they seemed out of place. This is not to be confused with the slow-moving scenes, which were very well done and were a great way to show distance covered with the minimum space on the stage.

Watching this play, from a more meta-philosophical perspective, it becomes possible in many ways to reflect on how World War One really was the beginning of truly inhuman and unnatural warfare. Beyond the anti-war and philosophical musings within the play itself (which in some places seemed a bit out of place compared in relation to the emotional impact they may have had), the symbolic nature of the production; animals being killed by machines and machine-made weapons (barbed wire, tanks, machine guns, etc) really hammered home the point that war is unnatural and kills more than just the body – rather, it kills the good and natural world, and we all suffer for it in the soul and the souls of our brethren.

Overall, a very solid production, a show that explores the tragedy of the
First World War, whilst hammering home its unnaturalness and brutality, and should be something any animal lover, history enthusiast, puppet enthusiast, or appreciator of good theatre should add to their list this year as a must see!

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