THE NATIONAL THEATRE, LONDON I am taken back to my pre-critical days, days during which I would see something— a play, a film— and know what I thought, but wouldn’t have to articulate it. Despite having been creatively involved in both media, there are times that I still don’t, or perhaps do not want to, think too much about what I’ve seen. However, there are things to be expressed about the National Theatre’s Christmas offering, and, yes, I can feel the critically authorial voice coming alive…
The theatre [my first time there, which is astonishing] is a poured concrete carbuncle, but perfectly designed from a functional point of view. The great stage, complete with its famous drum revolve—a circular section of the floor which rises and lowers as dramatically necessary— is black and bare for this production, a white diagonal gash of a backdrop suspended between floor and flies, the screen upon which images created by shadow puppetry project, and a collection of buckets hanging on the wall downstage left and right. This is promising, implying that there will plenty going on without having the narrative hampered by excessive scenery and furniture removal.
The narrative itself is set in the years of the First World War; the action ranges from the English countryside to the French trenches, and follows Albert’s pursuit of his horse Joey, conscripted for use in the British Army, across the fields of France. The ability of the production to do this as effortlessly as it does is due to the minimalistic set and maximalistic cast: at twenty six strong, playing multiple roles which includes singing and puppetry, the sheer force of numbers supports the epic quality of the story.
The adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel is just about adequate for the show’s needs, and it is a testament to the theatricality of the production— and the secret weapons— that allow the whole to transcend the weakness of this part. Blatantly expository and at times mawkish, the dialogue leaves nothing to our imagination, and therefore little for the majority of the actors to build on. It is workmanlike, and works insofar as we get from plot point A to plot point B, but it is blunt the way a hammer is blunt, a tool that enables the entire construction without materially enhancing it.
It is astounding how little this matters.
It matters little because of the horses. [This is what’s known as burying the lede.] The horses are life-sized puppets brought to life by three operators: one at the head, two beneath. Joey and Topthorn are made from wood and cloth, held together by cables and rods, and are as real as the guy out there in your pasture. This is true. They paw, snort, rear, gallop, and attack the feed in the buckets in exactly the same way as does your own equine friend. Their ears attend to every movement, they spook at loud noises, and are as susceptible to kindness and chocolate as any other horse you know. The actors treat them as such, and this is the heart of the matter: as if the impression that the sixteen hh Joey made was not enough, when the actor playing Albert mounted him, and rode him around, any disbelief that required suspension evaporated as visibly as an exhalation in December. Because these two creatures were so thoroughly embodied, it didn’t matter much that the actors as a majority were not up to snuff [barring the talented and handsome Angus Wright *wink*], or that the text was often bombastic— they was sufficient unto everything as a miracle of performance and craftsmanship personified… er, horsonified?
I’m going to quibble because it feels nice and insidery: whilst the actors did a superlative job interacting with the horses, we all know they shouldn’t have been crossing behind them [I mean, in fairness.] When Topthorn died [I practically shouted, ‘Oh, no, he’s colicking!’ Bless…], Joey didn’t go as mental as he ought at the loss of his friend. Albert’s heels were nowhere near down. And the horses didn’t get nearly as many curtain calls as they should have done.
Otherwise, I believe that young lives have been changed by this production. Have you every heard teenagers screaming approbation at anything other than a rock concert? Me, neither. Who knows how many theatre artists are being created on any given night? And it is a blatant wooing on the part of the practitioners: the horses are designed in such a way that their ‘skeletons’, their structures, are utterly exposed. The myriad lengths of wood are on the outside of the gauzy cloth ‘skin’. They should be perceived as nothing but artifice, but they are not, not from the second that little pony Joey wobbles onstage, to Albert’s understated return home on a mature Joey’s back. It is as if the creators are trying to make it as impossible as possible to ensure our belief, and yet we do, and so theirs is the purest triumph. I don’t know how a kid who might the slightest glimmer of a theatrical aspiration could fight the feeling in the face of this. It’s certainly re-inspired my conviction in the power of live theatrical performance— and that’s saying something.