By BRUCE DENNILL
War Horse / National Theatre production / Directed by Tom Morris
That the puppets used in the National Theatre’s production of War Horse at the Teatro in Johannesburg are impressive can’t be mentioned enough.
The statement is true, but making the Handspring Puppet Company’s creations the lone hook on which to hang the appeal of the play is problematic. And inaccurate. War Horse is no one-trick pony.
There is much at which to wonder: the giant slash of a screen that forms the backdrop for the action, populated throughout with designer Rae Smith’s beautiful, Kentridge-esque sketches and animated sequences; the magnificent lighting, which helps determine both mood and landscape on a stage that is only ever shades of black; the pinpoint choreography required to keep giant puppets and their handlers from constantly bashing into each other; and the simple, multi-purpose props – flagpoles that become fences, ploughshares that become battleground refuges and more – that allow the maintenance of the production’s visual ethos.
What hasn’t been mentioned in connection with the play, or certainly hasn’t been noticed by the audience members who had bumped into Joey at the National Arts Festival, the Joburg Art Fair and a dozen other arts-friendly contexts, is the production’s soundtrack.
The score, by Adrian Sutton, is good, but it’s of a type many will be familiar with. War theme? Great – stirring strings, and add some minor keys. Job more or less done.
No, the stuff that makes you prick up your ears – much like the horse puppets do, thanks to their hard-working puppeteers – are the folk songs written by John Tams and delivered with startling clarity and lump-in-the-throat authenticity by Bob Fox.
Folk music has been at the heart of English storytelling for hundreds of years and the pastoral settings in which most of the action in War Horse plays out – rural Devon and the shell-shattered fields of the Somme across the Channel – are well-suited to the sort of earthy, organic wisdom communicated through Tams’ music.
Sutton and Tams have at least earned respectable profiles for their work on War Horse – the former has won several awards and had the 20-minute War Horse Suite premiered by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 2010.
Bob Fox, though, remains as mystifyingly under the radar as he has for much of his career, despite being a leading light in the English folk scene, touring with Fairport Convention and receiving reviews like “As soon as I heard Bob Fox sing I realised he must have one of the best voices in England. I have always regarded him as an artist of great ability and integrity,” from Ralph McTell, an experienced and influential figure in English folk.
Fox’s character in War Horse doesn’t even have a name. He is known simply as “Songman” and functions as a narrator, offering occasional commentary or narrative links via his singing, often accompanying himself on accordion.
On his own, Fox is wonderful, a musician of rare skill effortlessly sharing a talent that, for aficionados of the sort of melodies he’s singing, makes the actor stand out from a throng of impressive performers. But when he is joined, a capella, by the full company – it only happens on a few occasions; this is not a musical – the effect is captivating, at least as powerful as the first charge, straight out of the powerful beam of a fixed spot, of the fully-grown Joey (when the audience is introduced to the horse as a stallion rather than as a foal).
War Horse is epic in every way: the better part of three hours long; featuring a near full-sized tank on stage; following characters through six years of turbulent world history and more. But if in all the wide-screen drama you fail to appreciate that the artistry of one middle-aged man in a hat is equal to that of a team of designers, choreographers, actors, puppeteers and lighting technicians, you will have missed something special.