NEWS: War Horse in Auckland

Charge!!! – National Theatre’s War Horse coming to Auckland in 2013 [by James Wenley]

UPDATE 7 May 2013: Poor Joey! War Horse is no longer coming to Auckland on its Australasian tour. Producers have blamed the cancellation of the August Season on ” high costs, a competitive market, sluggish ticket sales and even a long summer.” The citing of  a “competitive market” suggests that War Horse is an early casualty of the mega Musical Wicked, which opens in Auckland in what was to be the last week of War Horse. This news is not good for the viability of attracting future substantial shows to Auckland. If War Horse isn’t viable for our market, what is? See the NZ Herald (which suggests that Auckland’s theatrical calendar is made up entirely of international shows!).

Original story below, which was written when War Horse was first announced: 

War Horse NZ
A Boy and His Horse

War Horse, adapted from the book by Michael Morpurgo, has been a mega-smash for The National Theatre of Great Britain since its debut in 2007. The story explores the universal suffering of World War One as seen through the eyes of Joey, one of the millions of horses who were taken on the battlefield. Up to a million horses perished during the conflict.

Currently playing in the West End, Broadway, Toronto, and a US Tour, War Horse comes to Auckland (after an Australian season) from August 20th for 4 weeks at the ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre.

Forget what you know about the film – a beautifully shot if schmaltzy affair from Spielberg – War Horse on stage is the real deal. I saw the play at the Lincoln Centre in New York last year, and it rates as one of my top theatre experiences. I am so thrilled I’ll get the opportunity to see the show once again.

The talking point is the breathtaking puppets from South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. The play’s main character is very much Joey – a stunning life size horse shell manipulated by three puppeteers that can not only plough, charge, and jump, but firmly wins the hearts and minds of an audience. In total, the show has 18 puppets including horses Joey and Topthorn and a cheekey goose.

At the Media launch today we got to see the Joey puppet in action. Or rather, we got to meet Joey. Although we could clearly see the three puppeteers, it felt very much like there was a horse running around in Aotea Square. We media, childish smiles on our faces, followed the horse around and quickly got out of his way if he started coming back towards us. Joey even stopped to sample some of Aotea’s grass!

The ‘heart’ puppeteer controls the front legs and the breath of the horse – crucial to sell the illusion of the animal being alive. The puppeteer who controls the head is always conscious of what the horse is looking at, as well as listening at, the ears flicking to different stimulus. All three puppeteers are the ‘voice’ of the horse, and their equine sounds are totally authentic.

In the play, having followed Joey on his odyssey and become so attached, you really feel like you know what he is thinking. Steven Spielberg rightly complained that he couldn’t get his real horses to emote quite like these stage ones.

But what perhaps makes the show such a hit is it’s firmly not a case of spectacle over story – the storytelling is superb. We are taken from the farm where he is loved by country boy Albert, to being sold to the war effort and into the horror of the trenches. After a disastrous calvary charge he is taken in by the Germans, and a French family, before finding himself on no man’s land. It’s an emotionally gut wrenching journey, and one well worth taking.

War Horse NZ
Topthorn and Joey

At the launch, we were given a behind the scenes history of the show. They creators never intended to create a smash. Adapted from an obscure book, the play was touch and go for a long time. Handspring would ship prototypes to the National Theatre to experiment with without any guarantee the show was going to be made. The final product absolutely works, but during the making the demands of the story – Calvary charges, convincing horses, and trench warfare – seemed impossible.

But what a success. War Horse, along with National Theatre’s other recent smash One Man, Two Guvnors has kept the company ticking in the face of Arts cuts in Britain and subsidised its other fare.

Auckland is really lucky next year as we’ll also be able to see One Man, Two Guvnors at Auckland Festival next year. Global Creatures, who have partnered with National Theatre for the Australasian season of War Horse, said Auckland was one of the companies “most desired stops”. Their Walking with Dinosaurs Auckland season outsold their international stops. In the wake of both Jersey Boys and Mary Poppins this year, it’s good news for local theatre fans who no longer have to go overseas to get the big shows.

Initially planned to be an international tour, the companies are rehearsing an Australian and New Zealand cast for this tour. In the cast list I spy Gareth Reeves, one of our best, who was last seen here onstage in August: Osage County in 2010.

War Horse is a wonder of a production that tells its story and moves audiences in the special way that only live theatre can. We have till August next year to save up!

More information about War Horse can be found at THE EDGE

And Here’s a picture of Joey at Aotea Square today!

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  1. Looking forward: What’s on my theatrical radar for 2013? (Part 2) « Theatre Scenes: Auckland Theatre Blog (Reviews, interviews and commentary)

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