On the great stage of the Festival Theatre – full of smoke and lurid light, conjuring up the hell of the western front during the First World War – the huge horses stamp and whinny, pawing the ground.
Along with the men who ride them, they’ve been ordered to make a suicidal cavalry charge, across fields of barbed wire, into a storm of machine-gun fire; and as we watch, we see them rear and thunder towards us, towering over the stage, preparing for the mighty leap across the wire that offers their only chance of survival.
This is one of many unforgettable scenes in the National Theatre of Great Britain’s legendary production of War Horse, created in partnership with the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, and now at the Festival Theatre; and it comes as a decisive reminder of how the world of puppet theatre has been transformed over the last generation. Back in the 1970s, world-class puppet theatre still often meant a tiny jewel of European classic drama or fairytale, acted out in a small dark room by gorgeously-dressed 12in marionettes.
Now, though – with the whole range of mask and puppet traditions from across the planet swirling together in an inspired new age of invention – puppet theatre can mean almost anything, from the huge, transparent sculpted horses of War Horse, to the dazzling range of visual and object theatre from Europe and America featured in Scotland’s annual Manipulate festival, which arrives at the Traverse Theatre on Monday. This is a world in which anything from a fragment of cloth to a shadow on a wall can take on life, breath, personality, menace; and it’s certainly not a world of child’s play.
So what is it, in our culture, that has powered this transformation in the world of puppetry and “object theatre”? In the first place, the use of puppetry instantly frees theatre from the obligations of naturalism, and therefore helps live theatre to carve out a distinctive place in a world of 21st century dramatic experience dominated by big screen dramas; in War Horse, audiences are thrilled, in part, by the fact that their own imaginative power to see the puppets as horses is a vital part of the show. This simple truth has made puppetry extremely fashionable in 21st century subsidised theatre, so much so that it sometimes seems as if almost every show has its obligatory puppet element, whether it adds anything or not; although this movement has also helped to shape beautiful shows like the recent Vox Motus/National Theatre of Scotland/Tianjin People’s Theatre co-production, Dragon.
At an even deeper level, though, it seems to me that the new power of object theatre has something to do with a zeitgeist that is moving on from the human-centred view of the universe that characterised the modern age. In a negative sense, this shift in world-view can simply act as an excuse for the withdrawal of sympathy from our fellow human-beings, and its re-focussing onto objects or animals that we imagine as wholly innocent and lovable.
At its finest, though, this development suggests something else; a growing awareness, at an almost molecular level, that all life on this planet is interdependent, and that human welfare truly depends on the quality of our relationships with other animals, and with the physical resources of the earth. In that sense, the fact that it takes three meticulously trained human actors – head, heart and hind – to bring each great War Horse animal to life, visibly breathing, stamping and shifting, is an overwhelmingly powerful metaphor; a huge act of love and care, from one species to another, that speaks to the shifting consciousness of our time, and seals the huge success of this beautiful and disturbing show.
War Horse is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, until 15 February; the Manipulate Festival is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 3-8 February, and at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, this weekend.