Hot Horse, Dry River

War Horse is at the State Theatre, Melbourne, from December 31 to March 10, then moves to Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland.

The Secret River was at the Sydney Theatre from January 12 to February 9 before playing in Canberra and Perth.

Epic theatre

I swore I’d never watch Lassie Come Home again. I was eight years old. At Queenscliff’s Grand Picture Theatre we brawling Saturday matinee brats were a sniffle short of bawling: discreetly wiping cheeks silver with tears as they played the old record of “God Save the Queen”. Now, in a grander setting, it’s Lassie again plus Black Beauty plus Oh, What a Lovely War!—and a John Gilbertish silent movie. This time it’s not Lassie we want to come home, it’s Joey the horse. It’s War Horse, the children’s book turned into spectacular theatre by Britain’s National Theatre Company and South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. The State Theatre in Melbourne seats 2085, and the enormous stage had no trouble taking us from a village in Devon across a stormy Channel into First World War battlefields and back again.

The story is simple. Boy loves horse, dad sells horse, boy finds horse. Just add in the First World War, puppets made of wood, leather and aircraft wire, a German deserter, a huge cast, and you have War Horse. The marvel is that a story that could be told on Twitter has been turned into extraordinary, spectacular and moving theatre. Are we hard-wired for story-telling? No matter how far we wander, at some stage the simplicity of raw story-telling pushes everything aside and reasserts itself.

Take your seat and the open stage is not very interesting. Above the unlit playing space winds a long, narrow, tongue-shaped length of some sort of white fabric. When the performance comes alive an army officer sits sketching and that odd-shaped hanging above now looks like a scrap of paper torn from his sketchbook. On it we see the pencil strokes of the drawing he is making, or so it seems. The illustration takes shape and shows a Devon village and the date—on the eve of the First World War. Parts of the illustration begin to move. The first scene unfolds as the banner above continually changes. It’s not just a simple back-screen on which images are projected, but on it move animated and lively images that set the scene, or develop and enlarge the action taking place elsewhere on the stage. It’s a huge technological advance on the rectangular screens used for back projections that we are familiar with. The stage action is wrapped in light and special effects and these are merged with the screen effects. This explosive mixture fills up the large stage with extraordinary effectiveness. Melbourne trams advertising the play carry a single word—Terrific.

The puppetry begins simply with several swooping birds crossing the stage. They are tiny creatures at the end of long poles and part of a clever and structured build-up of special effects. We rather like meeting Joey as a foal and are wildly impressed when huge adult Joey appears. And then comes all the rest, including a farmyard goose with a fearsome personality. The two starring horses are each activated by three puppeteers to flex and bring life all over their bodies. The puppeteers move them and give them sounds—not voices. These individual horses have personalities, but not human personalities, they always remain horses. The puppeteers breathe in unison so that when they act together the creations’ movements are completely co-ordinated. When the cast line up to take their bows several smiling groups of three leap forward. For a moment I wondered who they were—even though they had been in front of me for over two hours.       

There is a combination of such marvellous things here, but the stage is more than just being used as the window of an enchanted toyshop. Wonderful puppets, extraordinary technology, the excitement of seeing a large number of people onstage, and then a lone man, John Thompson, walks forward and sings. The beauty and simplicity are touching. The War Horse audience isn’t a passive watching machine. We are played on like a musical instrument. The faces of the audience would be almost as fascinating to watch as the action onstage.

The story is simple, and many of the stage images seem familiar. They remind me briefly of photographs or drawings of fighting in the First World War before suddenly exploding across the stage. Far at the back the dangerous shape of a period tank appears, there is bright light behind it and the stage is enveloped in smoke as the upper screen shows line drawings of frontline fortifications and explosions. At a distance the tank is huge and frightening and then it crashes towards us, just veering off in another direction before it tramples the front rows of the stalls. At all times the people operating it are in clear view and yet also invisible. Then as fresh men go to the front, an image we have seen so often before, they make way for the returning soldiers, represented as hideous wounded monsters out of the canvases of Otto Dix or George Grosz.

There is, of course, an anti-war basis to the story but, for an adult, this is such familiar territory that it fails to ignite. The visual impact is just so overpowering that much of the dialogue is hardly taken in as image succeeds image on the stage, though always the basic elements of the story-telling remain fixed in the forefront of our minds. The boy Albert (Cody Fern), searching for his horse, Joey, is always with us. The pace of visual excitement is unrelenting right to the finishing line. There is nothing new or unfamiliar, yet at the same time it is all new and unfamiliar.

Almost at the end is a scene you could imagine as the climax of a John Gilbert silent movie about the Great War. It is sentimental and utterly predictable and yet we, the audience, are spellbound and as moved and damp as the kids we were at the Grand.


In the space of a week, as the country turns from bushfires to floods, I go from Joey Come Home to “Poms Go Home!”

Epic fail

The white actors have white makeup slapped roughly across their faces and limbs. It looks like Zinc Cream. The brown-skinned Aboriginal actors are au naturel—with perhaps just a touch of light-reflecting shine. There may be a clue here as to why the critics loved the play. The setting is somewhere up the Hawkesbury River in 1814. Sign of the times—on their website the Zinc Cream company calls the Australian flag a “Cronulla Cape”.

Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of The Secret River was commissioned by Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton for the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008. It is their biggest production to date and premiered in the Sydney Theatre during the recent Sydney Festival. Bovell dramatises only part of Kate Grenville’s prize-laden novel, and his play tells of the arrival of William Thornhill, a freed convict, his wife and two boys on the Hawkesbury to establish a farm. They are met by an Aboriginal tribal unit of three men, two women and two boys. Taking their land, Thornhill is unable to work out a way of existing together—Andrew Upton’s program-note indictment says he has “tragic moral failings”—and he finally takes part in a murderous affray which kills off all but one member of the Aboriginal group.

The director is Neil Armfield. Coming ashore in an imaginary boat, the Thornhills prepare to step onto their new land as scene shifters come onstage carrying buckets of mud. One by one the white family step into them and then onto the stage floor. Their very presence muddies the environment. Armfield, who says the settlers failed to find “a way of living here on this land with respect and humility”, recounts how hard it was to direct The Secret River when, after four weeks of rehearsal, he had “eyes stinging with tears”. After five minutes of his direction I felt his pain.

Playing for about two and a half hours plus twenty-minute interval, the lecture on right-thinking race relations ends up being rather ordinary, over-long, and very vague about the realities of Aboriginal life. However, flattering praise has fallen over it as critics have rushed forward to call it a “classic”. Even the bland set, by Richard Curtis, has been highly commended. Curtis, who lives on the Hawkesbury River, says, “In some ways I feel as though I have been preparing for this production for thirty years or more.” Before they tramp mud across it, the floor of the sandy-coloured stage is bare, except for a log on one side from which flames and smoke rise throughout the play. The wings are open and the central element of the set is a very big backcloth with some painted marks on it to represent a giant tree. Shrink it down, replace the gas fire with a piece of red cellophane and an electric bulb and it looks much like a school concert set at any local RSL hall in the 1960s. With this monumental image locked in place for over two and a half hours we don’t see or sense the unsettling changes the settlers are bringing—which is what the play is about.

The Aboriginal actors speak an Aboriginal language. An interesting idea that doesn’t work. Meeting local Aborigines, Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) tells them this is now his land and to go away. Yalamundi (Roy Gordon) talks to him—probably saying exactly the same thing. And then? Nothing really. There is no dialogue for a dramatic conflict to develop. In one of the weakest elements of the play’s structure it becomes necessary to introduce Thomas Blackwood (Colin Moody), a moody white man with odd tattoos and an Aboriginal “wife” (Ursula Yovich), to introduce the very superficial ideas the play puts forward. “Ain’t nothing in this world for the taking. Matter of give a little, take a little.” I’m not sure if that’s philosophy or a Doris Day song, and on stage it sounds just as shallow as it looks in print.

Costume designer Tess Schofield dresses the cast in op-shop odds and ends and old bits and pieces from the STC wardrobe. “This is not a story to hide between layers of muslin.” This is upriver New South Wales in 1814—not a lot of muslin here. A colourful mishmash for the settlers, dull brown for the Aborigines. The Aboriginal warrior in board shorts (the under-used Rhimi Johnson Page) could, with the right tattoos, be a Bra Boys member. Honest period costumes for the settlers, and no clothes for the Aboriginal characters, would have helped the actors find real people hidden under the platitudes and hipster drag. When Sal loses her skirt in an exchange with two Aboriginal women (Ethel-Anne Gundy and Miranda Tapsell) she is made to look foolish in long drawers—more likely lower-class Sal would not even have known what they were.

The acting tends to be the same mishmash as the costumes. If that heavy white makeup was supposed to suggest some sort of Brechtian epic theatre approach it doesn’t eventuate. While the Thornhill family are fairly naturalistic, characters like Smasher Sullivan (Jeremy Sims doing an energetic antipodean Simon Legree) and Loveday (Bruce Spence) have wandered in from a Bell Shakespeare panto. The neatly coiffed Aboriginal players might have dropped in from high tea in Redfern.

These are bookish creations, simple cut-outs to tell fictions. When we meet her, Sal (Anita Hegh) does a meant-to-be-homesick rendition of “London Bridge is Falling Down”. Writer, director and actress don’t seem to have a fix on Sal’s character. She’s very nice, the song is sweet and enjoyable. Yet Sal is an early example of a tight-lipped, miserable and utterly boring whinging Pom forever complaining about life here and longing to go back to a city she describes like an over-enthusiastic Lonely Planet Guidebook. The nursery song, which she will sing again later, has surely been sung by this unhappy woman a million times so that everyone about her is sick and tired of it and her constant complaining. But this is a play where the ideological mantra of brutal white invaders of blackfellow Eden is in conflict with what we see onstage. One of the white men speaks of “skinny blackfellows”. The Aboriginal men’s bodies are modern Australian—either gym-fit or overweight. We don’t see the slim physique of people living from hunting and gathering and none of the adults bear the marks of initiation.

There is much in the play about Aboriginal nudity, which is contrasted with English prudery. When confronted by Buryia (Ethel-Anne Gundy), Thornhill is shocked to the core of his little English being by her nakedness. The audience laughs at his reaction. Thornhill is outraged when his young son plays in the river naked with his naked Aboriginal friends. But no one on stage is naked. Buryia was bare-breasted in a National Geographic sort of way and the boys were in shorts. Even the meant-to-be-shocking moment when the sexually outraged Muruli (Miranda Tapsell) is led in at the end of a rope by Smasher Sullivan, she is bare-breasted, not naked. And the impact of that moment of brutality is reduced because we have seen her waiting in the wings to make her entrance. Even so, the attitudes of the real settlers towards naked bodies were eighteenth-century, not Victorian. Thornhill has been in the colony for years, and travelling in these parts, and bush natives were generally naked (Sydney Gazette, September 28, 1816). The uptight ones here are not the colonists, but the play’s director, and the audiences who laugh.

We are told that the white settlers have nothing the Aborigines need. But then we are shown the Aborigines accepting sugar, flour, pickled pork, taking the dress off Sal’s body, and stealing maize. At the same time the settlers, who can produce fire easily and at will, are meant to be impressed by the making of fire by tediously whirling a stick between their hands.

When Thornhill returns to the farm with a musket purchased in Sydney, Sal is shocked. But it would have been unthinkable for the Thornhills to have set out to create their farm without a gun for protection and for hunting. The normal reaction to the acquisition of a gun would have been pleasure, and the whole family going behind the hut to try it out.

To the horror of the whites, the Aborigines set fire to the land. Outside the theatre Australia is in the middle of a real bushfire season but on stage the fire-lighting is explained as a non-dangerous, non-spreading event—cue wrong-headed platitudes about “firestick farming”. The following day there is lovely light rainfall, the stage sprinklers are turned on overhead, and it’s not at all the nasty heavy rain of the white folks which erodes the land but the sort of lovely soft drizzle they knew in England. Sweet green grasses grow and a kangaroo, the one not barbecued in the bushfire, returns to nibble at it. Thornhill aims, shoots, and misses. The settlers are then enticed to the Aboriginal camp by the delicious aroma of cooking meat. The real smells would have been of burning kangaroo fur and burnt meat. Thornhill gives the Aborigines a piece of preserved pork and is given a skinny kangaroo leg in return. The narration mocks the Thornhills for their inability to skin the leg. This at a time when kangaroo steamer was one of the most monotonous meals in the colonial diet.

Of his Equity Aboriginal players Neil Armfield writes, “Imagine how hard it is for our actors, who draw strength and humility from their Indigenous elders and family, to tell this story.” Ursula Yovich acts as an onstage narrator. It’s like the flicking over of pages when we should be seeing what is happening, not being told about it. She also sings. Her songs are trivialised and diminished by being given a Western musical backing by composer and onstage musician Iain Grandage.

A curiosity of this production is that the most bizarre and disturbing moment comes not from the staged white-contra-black brutality but from the performance of a ceremonial dance involving both male and female dancers. In 1814 the intrusion of women into a dance performed by initiated men would have resulted in their deaths.

The climax. The white men pick up handfuls of white powder. They stand in a line across the back of the stage then move forward as they mime firing muskets. Each firing is an explosion of powder in their hands. Step by step, shot by shot they advance towards the audience. It’s effective. Then they leave and one by one the Aborigines come onto the stage and drop as the narrator tells us of their ends. This doesn’t work so well. When we see Thornhill with his young son, the boy asks if his playmate is all right. I don’t mind a nice dose of sentimentality: it’s sentimentality that doesn’t work that is offensive, and this does not work.

One Aborigine survives the massacre. By now it feels that we have come to the end but still more bits are being added as though the director is afraid to let go. When this last survivor (Trevor Jamieson) is offered charity by Thornhill he responds with pride and dignity. It’s a politically suitable ending for modern sensibilities. Unfortunately, the reality may have been more like some of the street people I have seen as I walked to the theatre. People, I have no idea if they were Aboriginal, who have washed up on those lonely streets dirty, begging, ill-kempt, broken. The last we see of him, William Thornhill is at the back of the stage drawing straight lines on the backcloth—a fence. Ursula Yovich crosses the stage singing.

Though neither good nor very honest, the play would have had more impact if the STC had not chosen this rather bland white-fellow-dreaming production but had it completely acted by black players with an Aboriginal director, set and costume designer and even front-of-house workers. Outside the auditorium Cate and Andrew do the usual thing and signs are pasted around the foyers acknowledging the “traditional custodians of the land on which we gather”—interesting that they don’t use the word owners for their own slice of expensive Sydney real estate. Maybe if the real settlers had used the same paper politics Kate Grenville would not have found the herstory for her fiction, and Australian theatre wouldn’t be quite so pale.

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