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A group of boys in Row 5 of the stalls giggled at their bad luck as I took my seat in front of them. But not even someone as tall and broad as me could obscure the now-famous puppetry of War Horse, of which this German premiere is the first non-English-language transfer from Britain’s National Theatre.
The moment the foal Joey trotted stage front and looked at the audience – and we, as one, looked back into his eyes, oblivious to the trio of puppeteers manipulating the life-size wood-and-leather figure – there came an audible “Oh, mein Gott!” of wonder from behind me. After several repetitions over the next half-hour or so, the boyish ostentation of the “mein Gott” vanished and the gasps became entirely spontaneous.
Although the German arm of production company Stage Entertainment is behind this transfer, it’s by no means certain that Berlin will take the show to its heart as other cities have done (it is still running in New York and Toronto as well as London, and has played more limited runs in major Australian cities). In Berlin, it has to carve out its niche in the city’s theatre scene. The two main constituencies here are the subsidised art-houses and the stage spectaculars in the biggest venues; there is no ready-made slot between them for visually arresting, commercial yet serious work.
In rendering Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book into German, Deutsches Theater dramaturge John von Düffel faced two principal problems. One is that the first world war, unlike its successor, is almost entirely absent from Germany’s national historical conversation. The “NS-Zeit” of 1933-45 is ineradicably present in the collective consciousness, and the Versailles settlement of 1919 was one of the factors that created a Germany where National Socialism could arise.
But the Great War itself has virtually no place. The 2014 centenary of the outbreak of the conflict will not be commemorated in Germany as it will be in Britain: the German intention is for greater reflection, perhaps involvement in other countries’ events rather than a significant programme of its own, and to emphasise the value of the European Union in having prevented such conflicts over the past 60-odd years.
This lack of substantive consciousness may be one reason why Steven Spielberg’s film version of War Horse flopped in Germany.
This awkwardness and unfamiliarity are compounded by the second problem: the fact that the text in effect asks that audiences identify primarily with British points of view and consider their own compatriots as the enemy.
True, at bottom this is (especially in its stage version) a simple love story between man and animal; it is true, too, that young human protagonist Albert is not a jingoistic embodiment of Englishness but rather comes from a small village in Devon, which plays to a strain that still persists in the German outlook of the honesty and common nobility of working on the land.
And war is hell whichever side you’re on, as Joey’s own experiences testify when, having had a cavalry officer shot off his back in a misguided charge on machinegun emplacements, he is then seconded for use drawing German ambulances and field artillery. Nevertheless, telling this story to a German audience requires of them a fairly hefty shift in perspective.
This has been addressed to some extent by softening the principal German characters where possible. However, there is only so much mitigation that can be done to the character of Klausen (Christoph Bangerter), the soldier who sticks to the military ethos; we only see his conscience too late, after he has shown himself disquietingly ready to solve problems with his trigger-finger. If this portrayal does not overcome the audience’s qualms, it is much easier in the case of Friedrich (Andreas Köhler), who is as considerate a companion to Joey as Philipp Lind’s Albert.
Polly Findlay, who assisted on the original London production, has overseen the transfer of the trademark staging, with Rae Smith’s projected monochrome sketches on a great torn strip across the backdrop and, of course, that now-legendary Handspring puppetry.
Initial press coverage has tended, as in Britain, to centre on the spectacle both of the show itself and of its gala opening night. Still, if it does not succeed here, it will not be for want of dramatic effectiveness. Certainly, on the press night, those boys behind me got very bored by the number of curtain calls.