Eser Ebcin (folk-singer), Tim van Eyken (singer) & Duncan Rock (baritone)
Life-Size War Horse Puppets by the Handspring Puppet Company
Proms Military Wives Choir
National Theatre Ensemble
Cambiata North West
BBC Concert Orchestra
David Charles Abell
Melly Still – Stage Director
Soutra Gilmour – Set Designer
Michael Morpurgo – Author
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 3 August, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Initially leaving me (somewhat uncharacteristically) at a loss for words, the BBC Proms teamed up with the National Theatre for the first time to present a centenary commemoration of the declaration of the First World War. It was an atypical Prom by any standard, but was of excellence and ambition. As on the previous evening (Kiss Me, Kate), the orchestra (BBC Concert) was far back on the stage, allowing a number of tableaux to be presented on the fore of it and, indeed, the Arena.
National Theatre regular Melly Still (not one of the original directors of War Horse, but a regular hand for the National’s wildly successful seasonal shows, of which it has been the runaway success) conceived a seamless 85-minute show which started in early-summer 1914, with a scene on a beach, before the declaration of War and men’s enlisting before introducing the foal Joey in puppet form. Almost imperceptibly, the story’s author Michael Morpurgo is discovered at the side of the stage and, in a silent role, he became Albert who rears Joey and takes him into conflict, the full-size puppet then appearing from beneath the Arena and mingling with the Prommers, who had been given replica barleycorn to wave, so it looks as if Joey is moving through a cornfield. For those that have not seen the National Theatre show, it may be hard to imagine, but this requires three puppeteers to manipulate Joey and is probably more extraordinary than if a real horse had been miraculously trained to act. Everything about it, from conception to application, is astounding and poignant.
The revulsion of War was not understated – and it gave Still the opportunity to briefly highlight some forgotten corners. After Joey is caught in barbed wire, but eventually found, the destructive reach was represented by the Ottoman Empire and the horrors of Crimea and Gallipoli, with the haunting Turkish folksong ‘Çanakkale içinde’ (In Çanakkale), sung by Eser Ebcin. Four women were featured: Dorothy Lawrence (the only woman, disguised as a man, to fight in the trenches), Flora Sandes who officially made it to Sergeant Major in the Serbian army (and then to Captain), nurse Edith Cavell who was shot by the Germans for assisting soldiers escaping from occupied Belgium and Margaretha Zella, better known as Mata Hari, convicted by the Germans of being a spy and also executed.
As in Morpurgo’s narrative (though not depicted here), the German side of the atrocities was also represented, with three sections of Paul von Klenau’s Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (The Lay of the Love and Death of Ensign Christoph Rilke), sung by Duncan Rock. The hero’s namesake, poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), details the futility of war by setting his tale during the fighting between Austria and the Turks in 1663 – humanity and the music of Klenau (Danish-born) has a distinct German influence, even when heard so briefly. Also mentioned were the 20,000 persecuted for not actively joining in World War One – 3,000 of whom were executed. This Prom pulled no punches.
Other participants included the National’s original Songman for War Horse, Tim van Eyken, who has one of the most distinctive voices on the British folk-music circuit, even though his career seems to have veered towards the stage (his current day-job is singing in Shakespeare in Love in the West End). As in the stage show, van Eyken topped and tailed the seamless musical span with ‘Only Remembered’ – as nostalgia-laden as you could want. At the start it segued into Frank Bridge’s delicately evocative orchestral Summer (later the BBCCO would play two movements from Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin) and, at the end, followed two moving vocal works. Hannah French has intriguingly re-envisioned Henry Wood’s New War Hymn, by paring it down from the full-throated first verse, with audience participation, to the penultimate stanza sung by a boy (after a lusty member of the audience had been silenced!) and the final one taken touchingly by the Proms Military Wives Choir (this being the opposite of Wood’s original, which built to a climax). It was left to the boys of Cambiata North West to bring modern analogies to the fore in the premiere of Adrian Sutton’s setting of Jonathan James’s thought-provoking Some See Us, laying at humanity’s door the charge to stop War. Can we not learn from history?
Magnificently marshalled (indeed, with military precision), the presentation was underpinned by high musical values, especially from the BBC Concert Orchestra, mainly conducted by Abell, but also Gareth Malone. The contribution from the members of the Military Wives Choir was exemplary, not only in Elgar and Holst, but also in their travelling around the stage. They started high in the Gallery for ‘Only Remembered’ before, during Bridge’s Summer, filing quietly onto the stage (with some bringing on pairs of boots for the soldiers), and just as effortlessly, leaving the stage up the steps on either side and regrouping in the Choir area. It couldn’t have been better done.
There was though one miscalculation, the stand-alone addition of ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ at the very end, Gareth Malone and presumably one of the Military Wives (it was not clear) entered the empty stage, he with a banjo. Somehow, the spell had burst, and it didn’t work. Malone threw his plectrum into the audience afterwards, which hopefully indicates he’ll leave the banjo well alone in future and stick to conducting. But to the rest, this will stick in the memory as both a visual and musical (including Sutton’s War Horse score) treat. It was recorded for television (at a future date to be specified – perhaps Remembrance Sunday), which might make more sense than on BBC Radio 3. Still’s production was full of arresting images, such as falling snow, and the use of a camera (modern technology in an old wooden box) to beam black-and-white images on to the war-ravaged, tattered screens, frayed underneath, like a grainy documentary. These high production values were also upheld by the sepia programme, lavishly illustrated and annotated. As a centenary commemoration of the start of the First World War it was perfectly judged.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms