7pm, Tue 19 to Sat 23 Nov 2013, Corpus Playroom
Goosebumps are a near permanent fixture in the performance of And the Horse You Rode In On. Set in the trenches, craters and bunkers of a First World War battlefield, we delve deep into the human, and are as warmed by the displays of true solidarity as we are disturbed by the mental torment of the soldiers and by the flashes of repulsive cruelty.
The play centres around two groups of soldiers: five Brits and their five German counterparts. The real war seems to be raging within the groups rather than between them, indeed when two soldiers from opposing camps meet the conversation is probably the most civil one of the play. Within the camps, tensions are exposed and ignited as characters struggle to accept the impossibility of their situation and the certainty of death.
Innocent exchanges morph into everything from vicious stamping of authority to pitiful confessions of guilt and profound, joint realisations that, as soldiers, they are a simple resource. What is obvious from the outset with such a challenging array of emotions to convey is just how beautifully balanced the cast is. Every actor clearly fits their role, and there are one or two exceptional performances.
It is not easy to convincingly work up such a high level of intensity, yet not long into the play the audience was already so caught up in the tension and so sympathetic towards the characters that it was almost refreshing to witness their venomous confrontations and to hear their desperation bursting out. When one soldier screamed, “Fuck you, fuck Meinhard, and fuck everyone!” the audience was frozen; we were, or at least I was, overwhelmed with the urge to stand up and shout “Yeah!” – such is the empathy we share with the characters.
On a couple of occasions the fluidity and suspension of disbelief of the play wavered, but then it is nigh on impossible to turn a simplistic bunker set into a convincingly chaotic shell crater in twenty seconds, just as thirty seconds is hardly enough to transform two relatively clean young soldiers into a shell-shocked, bloodied living corpses. Similarly, there were instances in which the acting was a little wooden, but this only really stands out because the standard was generally so high.
And the Horse You Rode In On is not relaxing by a long stretch, but it is most certainly entertaining and thought-provoking – I would be hard pushed to imagine it leaving anyone unaffected. The play’s greatest asset is undoubtedly its intensity. A combination of the cast, the tasteful choice of sound, music and lighting, and the range of human emotions explored get the adrenaline pumping and the goosebumps bristling.