Canadian War Museum announces exhibition for Toronto production of War Horse

The Canadian War Museum is lending an authentic historical touch to Mirvish Productions’ staging of War Horse in Toronto. Over 30 of the Museum’s First World War-era cavalry and veterinary artifacts will be on display in a mini-exhibition at the Princess of Wales Theatre when the award-winning play officially opens there on February 28, 2012.

“The Canadian War Museum is pleased to partner with Mirvish Productions for the presentation of War Horse,” said James Whitham, Acting Director-General of the Canadian War Museum. “This play is not only a moving tale of courage, loyalty and friendship, but also a great historical drama that illustrates the vital but often tragic role of horses in the First World War.”

“We are constantly seeking innovative ways to bring the War Museum’s exceptional collections to new audiences,” Whitham added. “We welcome this opportunity to enhance the experience of theatre-goers by sharing authentic artifacts that can add to their understanding of the play and to their knowledge of the Great War.”

War Horse is produced by The National Theatre of Great Britain, National Angels, Bob Boyett and David Mirvish and is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford in association with Handspring Puppet Company, It’s the story of a British boy named Albert and his beloved horse Joey, sold to the cavalry and shipped to France at the outbreak of the First World War. Fate takes the horse on an extraordinary journey, while Albert embarks on a treacherous mission to find his horse and bring him home.

Morpurgo’s 1982 novel was inspired by true stories of Allied cavalry units in the First World War. Canadian mounted units served overseas throughout the war, and fought in the Battle of Moreuil Wood in 1918. It was this Canadian connection that prompted Mirvish Productions to partner with the War Museum in developing historical displays for the theatre’s lobby areas.

In the play, Joey gets caught up in enemy fire and eventually ends up serving on both sides of the conflict. The War Museum’s mini-exhibition complements the War Horse storyline, juxtaposing a Canadian cavalry trooper’s full uniform, weapons, tack and other equipment with those of an Imperial German mounted rifleman and his horse. War Museum text panels explain how the evolution of machine guns, artillery and heavily defended trenches limited the role of cavalry on the Western Front for much of the First World War. Most horses pulled supply wagons or guns, although mounted units saw greater action during the more mobile fighting of 1918.

To illustrate the conditions and dangers to which horses were exposed, the Museum also created a display of surgical instruments and a box of recovered shrapnel belonging to Major A.E. Cameron of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps (CAVC). Cameron removed these bullets and fragments from wounded horses on the Western Front in 1917–1918. Canadian veterinary officers worked tirelessly to treat sick and injured animals, and to improve the atrocious working and living conditions suffered by horses. Still, as many as four in five horses lost by British and Commonwealth Forces were victims of disease, exposure or exhaustion rather than enemy fire.

The War Museum’s exhibition will be on display at the Princess of Wales Theatre throughout the spring and summer of 2012.

The stage production of War Horse, featuring life-size, mechanical horse puppets, comes to Toronto after hugely successful runs in London’s West End and on Broadway, where it won six Tony Awards. Director Steven Spielberg’s epic movie version, which opened on Christmas Day 2011, is nominated for six Academy Awards on February 26, 2012 including Best Picture.

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