National Velvet, for boys

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(Total Spoiler Alert) The principal defect in the English National Theatre’s production of Warhorse in the State Theatre at the Arts Centre is the lack of surtitles. Despite a background montage suggesting that the scene was set in rural Devon, the cast may as well have been speaking Welsh. It took me 20 minutes to decipher the name of the horse. John, Joel, Joan, Joe? I opted for Joe and when it transpired that a cast member who had been blessed with the benefit of a diction coach called the horse ‘Joey’, I felt adequately vindicated.

The masterpiece of this production was clearly the animated puppet horses. For these it has received accolades and rightly so. My initial reaction to the colt puppet, I must confess was one of horror. There was a most unfortunate juxtaposition of a puppeteer and the horse’s rear, a disturbing image which I trust will fade after a few month’s therapy. The adult horse mercifully had its operators positioned inside its abdomen which was a great relief all round. For the human cast, however, the play had a stress-free script. It was an acting-free zone of which they were amply able to avail themselves.

Arthur, the Elizabeth Taylor character in this National Velvet re-make, had an unhealthy relationship with his pony, much like Liz but without the benefit of her violet eyes (or so far as I could tell from row J in the Stalls). This obsession was clearly to the detriment of any academic tuition that may have been available in the Welsh part of Devon, because later it transpired that he could not write. This of course came as no surprise to the audience as he had been as dumb as a sack of hair from the get-go, a trait that continued into the penultimate scene where it appeared that tear gas had affected his hearing.

The play does have a happy ending, though unfortunately it does not come anything near quickly enough. There are endless battle scenes with flashing lights and black & white projected montages. Clearly the director is not acquainted with the expression “don’t mention the war!”. Embedded in these slow but explosive scenes is an entirely superfluous sub-plot replete with an empathic horse-loving, semi-deserting German officer and a French-farmhouse mother with a Jamaican daughter who looked as if she had accidentally walked onto the stage from the set of Gone with the Wind. Only Hercule Poirot could explain why any of this was necessary or even genetically possible and decipher what the name was that the German gave the black horse (?). The script definitely needed a red pen run through page after page. If you only have an hour to live, see this play as these scenes seem like an eternity.

Many people are killed but incongruously not the man who sang folk songs incessantly throughout most of the production. Why he survived is Hercule’s next task, but it is definitely my recommendation that he be the first victim in any reprise of this play. What with the explosions, the Welsh, the folk songs (did I mention the accordion?) there was a niche market for an auditory specialist’s booth next to the merchandise stall in the foyer at intermission.

3 comments

  1. Now that you have seen it I can submit my spoiler. The beginning of the second act needed savage editing, Topsy with it. Only the fear of being awakened by gun shots kept me alert and able to appreciate the puppeteers, whose collapses under the dead horses earned admiration. Like you I failed to appreciate the concertina and piano accordion players feeling they would have been suited to a Banjo Patterson production, so Australian did they seem. A good crit, Father M. May I quote you?

  2. Having not seen the play but heard various comments, I found it interesting to have one that tended to read or listen or see between the lines. Certainly what you wrote is nothing like I have been lead to expect, but perhaps those who’ve seen it are grappling with it, something similar to you.

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