Warhorse

The Lowry Theatre

Written by Michael Morpurgo

Adapted for Stage by Nick Stafford

Directed by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris

A National Theatre production

Warhorse had it’s regional première at The Lowry in 2013 and returns for the third time, fittingly as the centenary of the end of WW1 approaches. The book by Michael Morpurgo was adapted at The National Theatre in 2007 and has been hugely successful ever since with worldwide audiences of over 7 million. It is a extraordinary show in terms of scale and ambition with a use of puppetry by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company that is breathtakingly effective. It takes the audience on a journey from sleepy pre-war Devon countryside to the horrors and brutality of the battlefields of France. It is a poignant tribute not only to all that wasted youth and unfulfilled potential but to the animals who suffered and were slaughtered in appalling numbers.

This is a huge production relying on the puppetry effects merging with a large cast in a believable way. There are moments with the birds early on that don’t seem as effective as perhaps intended but otherwise it all works incredibly well. Moments like the puppeteers reverently stepping away from Topthorn perfectly convey the loss of the heart and soul of this proud animal. Similarly the sudden breaking of the colt to make way for the fully fledged Joey is spectacular. This is clearly a team effort with the whole cast giving their all to a very special theatrical experience.

The design work on Warhorse is astounding in its apparent simplicity. Rae Smith’s set is a bare stage using occasional props but to stunning effect. Doors appear in the dark backdrop or poles create market day or become paddock fences. Barbed wire draped at the front of the stage creates a visceral horror that is unforgettable. The brilliance of the vast overhead projection screen is incredibly special. As the performance opens it looks like a slash of white cloud across the Devon countryside but is of course a torn fragment of parchment from a soldiers sketchbook. The backdrop of images of country villages, callow youths on horseback and soldiers’ arrival in France and the battlefields of The Somme are sketched out across the screen in black and white drawings. The only splash of colour is when the screen bleeds red for a lost comrade and poignantly becomes the blossoms of poppies on The Somme.

The lighting by Paule Constable is beautifully done creating golden summer days and crisp winters before shifting into the bleak battlefields where soldiers emerge from the gloom or are blinded by the white flashes of explosions or the yellowing haze of gas attacks. The lighting has the effect of breaking the fourth wall by making the audience experience the battlefield horrors as though they are there too. The impact of the sound and visuals have created a powerfully immersive experience that lingers after the show has ended.

My grandfather was a country boy like Alfred and fought throughout the war. He was to be the sole survivor of his platoon at The Somme and initially was listed as dead. He was seriously injured, placed on a cart of dead bodies dragged back through the mud and debris by a horse such as Joey. He started to regain consciousness as the bodies of his friends were lifted off for burial. He was one of the lucky ones who came home.

This is an incredibly moving experience especially as the young soldiers go over the top and are cut down so brutally. The horrors of horses ridden into barbed wire with no escape or dragging ambulance carts or tanks through the treacherous mud. Warhorse is a potent reminder of why WW1 is rightly still remembered as a testament to the senseless cruelty of war.

The Lyric Theatre, The Lowry

13th – 30th June

Images by Brinkhoff & M Âgenburg

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

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Writer Daniel Jamieson

Director & Co-Choreographer Emma Rice

Kneehigh & Bristol Old Vic

Originally performed as Birthday over 25 years ago The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is a celebration of love and art on so many levels. The love child of writer Daniel Jamieson and director Emma Rice who also acted in the original,it was revived in 2016 and has been a hugely successful production for Kneehigh and Bristol Old Vic. This lush homage to another set of young lovers- artist Marc Chagall and his beloved muse and first wife Bella Rosenfeld paints a picture on the stage that is both sensual and transcendent.

The love story is told in flashbacks as a widowed Chagall recounts the romance over the telephone to his son-in-law, the art historian Franz Mayer. They met and fell in love in Vitebsk, Belarus in 1909 and married in 1915 when Chagall returned from successes in Paris and Berlin. Trapped in Russia because of WW1, they were to witness the Russian Revolution and Chagall established the Vitebsk Arts College and painted in the Moscow New Jewish Theatre. Bella gave birth to their daughter Ida and carried on her own writing. They later fled to Europe, before WW2 and the Holocaust forced them to escape France on 1941 for America where Bella died in 1944.

The central performances are flawless. Marc Artolin and Daisy Maywood are utterly believable and sing, dance and emote with a form of enhanced theatricality that perfectly fits this dreamy, magical piece. The sense of a place so vibrant and colourful reduced by war to memories and black and white postcards is beautifully evoked. Every movement is choreographed to create a sense of immersion in Chagall’s paintings and in their hopes and dreams, and their visual and sensory world. Also on stage throughout are multi-instrumentalists Ian Ross and James Gow who bring another layer of rich authenticity playing music with French, Yiddish and Russian influences and a definite klezmer vibe.

Magical touches like a red helium balloon floating away as a fleeting love interest blushing like a radish. Colourful hats portraying animals from his paintings and symbolic fruits like the etrog are images from a lost world as the honeymoon trunk is unpacked. The inspired wit of using puppetry chairs to allow the lovers to dance the Hora or chair dance at their wedding which symbolises that in a good marriage you always strive to go ever higher, as these soaring lovers did in so many of his paintings. There are moments where images from paintings come to life through tableau scenes like when a canvas of a rabbi is unfolded in front of Bella and her own arms come through it as life and art merge.

Designer Sophie Clist has created a set which is compressed yet airy. It allows paintings to come to life and lovers to soar. It also gives a sense of a boat at sea, a reminder of the dispossessed on the move, always either leaving or returning. The lighting by Malcolm Rippeth has all the vibrancy of classic Kneehigh productions but in this piece is even more potent. The painterly depth and richness feels almost visceral at times with the wedding scene having a neon quality. Everything here is heightened and vital, from the tick of a clock and the slow drip from the ceiling to the lily white face and blackberry curls with eyes so blue like splinters from heaven.

Rice and Jamieson have created something of timeless tenderness. A lost world is seen again as we walk in the lover’s shoes through extraordinary times in history. The unpacking of the shoes and journals is utterly poignant, a reminder of so many journeys and stories recorded, and evoking the piles of shoes in Auschwitz belonging to the Jews who couldn’t escape. Chagall comes vividly to life as a pioneer of Modernism and as one of the most famous Jewish artists of the twentieth century. His Bella is painted as he saw her long flying over my canvas guiding my art…..Love and fantasy go hand in hand.

HOME until April 7th

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Images by Steve Tanner