Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Theatre of War: WAR HORSE at the Lyttelton Theatre; THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER Mixed Programme at Covent Garden

As was expected, the theatre also marked the Centenary of the end of Word War I in November and I saw two of the productions that marked the event.

First off was the more obvious one, the National Theatre's game-changing production of WAR HORSE which had been on manoeuvres around the country before reaching the Lyttelton Theatre stable for an extended stay until the start of January.

As Mr and Mrs World know by now, WAR HORSE is based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo about Albert Narracott who, although under-age, joins up to find his beloved horse Joey who has been sold to the army and is somewhere on the Western Front; while there boy and horse both experience the carnage of war at first hand.  I was lucky to see both the original 2007 production and the 2008 revival, both at the Olivier Theatre and both were very moving, involving productions - just ask Stephen Sondheim who was a blubbing wreck in 2007 on the night we went!

It then moved to the New London Theatre where it had an amazing run from 2009 to 2016.  Joey has since become a mainstay of many Remembrance celebrations, a genuine iconic presence.  I had such vivid memories of the show that it was a surprise that it was nearly ten years since I had seen it last so another visit was definitely on the cards.

The good news is that Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris' production - here re-directed by Katie Henry - still delivers the emotional crescendo which had the Lyttelton audience sobbing and sniffing and there are certain images that are indelible once you have seen them, however...  it is a given that no one really goes to see WAR HORSE for the cast's performances - Nick Dear's adaptation is more weighted towards Joey, his equine rival Topthorn and the Narracott's family goose - but even by these standards the anonymity of the performances was quite astonishing.

Thomas Dennis as Albert hardly registered and, as his irascible father Ted, Gwilym Lloyd huffed and puffed to very little effect.  There is also a very odd performance from Ben Ingles as the supposedly-sympathetic officer Lt. Nicholls who promises to care for Joey - it was nothing I could really pinpoint but I wouldn't trust him with a My Little Pony toy, let alone our plucky Joey.  Even the usual laugh-generator role of the f-ing Sgt Thunder went for nothing in Jason Furnival's hands.

However I would like to praise Peter Becker as the caring German officer Friedrich Muller who helps Joey and Topthorn when they are captured on the wrong side of No Man's Land, he at least convinced that Muller was a three-dimensional character.  Jo Castelton as Rose Narracott also found some depth as Albert's careworn but worried mother and the John Tams' songs were well sung by Bob Fox.

The best performances were unsurprisingly by the Handspring life-size puppets of Joey, both foal and horse, Topthorn and - yes - the goose.  The puppeteers invested them all with character and emotions which made it very easy to forget the actors and concentrate on them.  In particular, the scenes where  Joey and Topthorn were commandeered by the German army as pack-horses were full of unspoken pathos, none more so than Joey's gentle nuzzling of Topthorn as he dies, exhausted and broken.  The excellent touch of Topthorn's demise being made real by having his puppeteers slowly emerge from the puppet and slowly walking offstage is incredibly effective.

I did feel something was lost in the transfer to the proscenium stage but Rae Smith's spare design, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler's remarkable puppet design and Paule Constable's lighting still delivered, as did Adrian Sutton's score.  I am glad I experienced WAR HORSE again, but just wish that most of the human cast had invested their roles with the passion that the puppeteers did.

A few days later we saw a more intriguing response to the Centenary, the Royal Ballet's premiere of THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER, which was part of a mixed programme with Wayne McGregor's INFRA and the late George Balanchine's SYMPHONY IN C.

The ballet took as it's inspiration the recorded memories of WWI veteran Wally Patch and a contemporary of his, Florence Billington, who in voice-over remember the quiet and lonely devastation they felt at the deaths of friends and a boyfriend respectively.  These spoken memories are interwoven with the lush, sombre score by film composer Dario Marianelli to create an absorbing soundscape to Alastair Marriott's choreography which illustrates the story of Florence and her beau Ted Feltham; from their meeting at a social dance before the war to his enlisting and subsequent death on the battlefield, cradled by Patch as he dies, to Florence receiving the news by telegram to Ted viewing it all from another place.

The ballet was visually stunning with a fractured, broken video playing on the scrim of contemporary footage of the call to arms in 1914 to the solemn procession of the coffin of the Unknown Soldier in 1920, which eventually raised to reveal Es Devlin's minimalist design of rotating flat panels which were played upon by Bruno Poet's stark lighting to create sweeping changes of tone across the stage while the reminiscences of Patch and Billington were heard.

There were good performances from William Bracewell as Ted and Anna Rose O'Sullivan as Florence but in the cold light of day the ballet failed to move; Marriott's choreography was nice to watch but detracted from the pathos of the spoken testimony of individual loss.  There was no profundity in the thoughts behind the movements but more importantly the very real disconnect between the spoken remembrances of the Western Front's living Hell and the precision and athleticism of the male dancers was too strong to ignore.  The piece ultimately felt like there was no real artistic need for being there, it was a commission to fill a brief in the programming.  I also read somewhere the jibe that he can't be THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER if we know his name was Ted Feltham!

The three ballets in the mixed programme seemed to have been selected to counter-point each other, there was no linear connection between them other than to show off the versatility of the Royal ballet company.  McGregor's INFRA from 2008 had twelve dancers hyper-extending in solos and groups to McGregor's signature taxing choreography while above them Julien Opie's illuminated silhouettes walked in solipsistic silence left and right.  It's an obvious leap to get what McGregor is illustrating - the tortured souls underneath those anonymous walkers - but after a while you long for a resolution.  But always good to hear Max Richter's music...

But then the mood was turned on it's head again with George Balanchine's glorious SYMPHONY IN C, danced to the music of Georges Bizet.  Premiered in 1947 in Paris but extensively re-thought for New York City Ballet the following year, Balanchine drew on his extensive knowledge of the Russian classical tradition from his teenage years with the Imperial Ballet and from his years with the Ballet Russes in the 1920s.

Broken down into four movements with new performers for each, SYMPHONY IN C is a whirlwind extravaganza of pure classical technique: it's like every classical ballet finale with the narrative and named characters removed so you can just concentrate on solos, pas de deux and ensemble routines.  With over 50 dancers onstage as it reaches it's conclusion, it felt so impossibly sumptuous and showy that I almost expected a camera crane to swoop in and a director to yell "cut", such is it's feel of a Hollywood musical idea of a big ballet number.

The four couples were excellently danced by Natalia Osipova, Sarah Lamb, Reece Clarke, Marcelino Samb√©, William Bracewell, Anna Rose O'Sullivan, Yuhue Choe and Luca Acri.  It was by far the most memorable piece of the evening and rather put the others in their place.

I would definitely see SYMPHONY IN C again, I am happy to have seen THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER and INFRA but think I would pass on seeing them again.  However as I said earlier, the mixed programme was a wonderful showcase for the talents of the whole Royal Ballet company.

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