Twelve years after its conception, in a wonderfully fertile collaboration between Britain's National Theatre and South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, War Horse prances into the Civic to deliver a sensational and deeply moving theatrical experience.

The magnificent horses at the heart of the show openly reveal their mechanisms and no attempt is made to conceal the beautifully choreographed actions of the teams of performers manipulating the elaborate horse structures.

The magic comes from the combined efforts of puppets, puppeteers and audience, who are drawn together to perform the miracle Geppetto and Pinocchio dreamed of - bringing a puppet to life. The audience's emotional engagement deepens as we witness the tremulous movements of a foal, with twitching ears and lurching head, slowly becoming accustomed to the human world.

It is harrowing to see the same horse harnessed to a heavy plough-collar, forced to endure the drudgery of lugging hospital carts and heavy artillery, terrified by exploding shells and screeching in agony when entangled in barbed-wire.

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The story, based on Michael Morpurgo's children's book, presents stark juxtapositions between extreme brutality and exquisite tenderness – as seen in the gentle grooming and watering of a horse after it returns half-dead from exhaustion on the battlefield.

But the show is not all about puppetry. Ben Murray's folk songs and Rae Smith's beautifully animated line drawings evoke both the conviviality of an English village and the unspeakable horrors of the sodden battlefields of the Somme. The dialogue sometimes seems a little over-cooked but this is easily ignored as we empathise with the bond between a boy and his horse which is as poignant as any human love story.

If you want contemporary relevance, the inter-dependence between horse and master, which swings between loving kindness and abusive exploitation, is a powerful metaphor for the current relationship between nature and humankind.

It is difficult to leave the show without reflecting on the brilliant contribution the publicly funded National Theatre has made to British and world culture - it is surely time to ask why New Zealand has failed to make a commitment to a comparable institution?

What: War Horse

Where & When: The Civic until Sunday, July 14


Reviewed by: Paul Simei-Barton