Few performances have grabbed the public’s emotions and imagination as the staging of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s story War Horse. While the Spielberg film version was indeed popular, it is this staging using magnificent puppets to bring to life the horses (and other creatures) that has made it without doubt the ultimate First World War stage show.
In this 100thanniversary year of the end of the horrific global war all manner of arts events have been produced and more are in the pipeline but I suspect none have or will come close to this show for tearing at the heart and the brain. It is perfect that the show is back at WMC five years after its first canter.
Nothing can prepare you for the wonderful puppetry work with such exquisite attention to detail, faultless execution of animal movements, a mesmerising weaving of human and animal interactions, love, loyalty, loss, fear and despair. And it is the puppetry that make this show very special. Yes, the acting is good, the script fine, the elegant backdrops of wartime sketches capturing the English idyll pre-War and then the horrors of warfare effective and then sound and lighting effects totally engaging. But it is the horses that make this entire show worthwhile.
On one hand we are able to forget the people manipulating the puppets as find ourselves being drawn into the characters of the animals but it is then worth pulling back and looking to those humans and fully appreciating how they are generating this magic.
The show is, at its simplest, the story of a boy fighting (literally at times) to be reunited with the horse he has reared. The balance is that the horse in turn overcomes every obstacle to survive. Just as other humans are sacrifices on the altar of imperial warfare so too we see the horror of the horses who are quite literally cannon fodder.
The young man is a Devon lad called Albert (Thomas Dennis) and his horse Joey. There are lots of interlinking relationships (Albert and his family and relations, another son and father, public school officer types and the raw troopers, soldiers and innocent civilians in France and, of course, the Tommies and the Huns.
I would question whether this show genuinely has the horse, Joey, as the central character as in the children’s story despite much commentary. It is Albert and in scenes where the boy is not there other humans take centre stage as they have their own relationship with the horse.
There are also some pretty odd accents along the way from some cast members who were also quiet hard to make out.
There are some moments when the plot gets either too busy and scenes rush past as we are swept from 1914 to 1918 or a little banal (the German father who is also a horse lover who chooses to protect the horses and desert) but the overarching pathos is so intense all can be forgiven.
There is also some humour, particularly the goose puppet with the recurring joke that she cannot get into the farmhouse and some trench humour but the latter is very much in the dark humour mode, finding some humanity in complete adversity.
Does it say anything new? Not really. Maybe it is just Black Beauty for boys. Whatever. What is undeniable is that this is a powerful and emotional night of theatre that says just about everything that needs saying about the First World War.
My grandfather rose the front horse in the Royal Horse Artillery during the First World War and was one of the lucky ones returning only with bullet wounds that had scarred but not ended his life and body. Like many other, no doubt, come November I will now be keeping my “commemorations” personal and internal.
A wonderful evening from National Theatre and particularly Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa
War Horse is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford and presented in association with Handspring Puppet Company. Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, it is designed by Rae Smith, lighting is by Paule Constable and movement and horse choreography by Toby Sedgwick. The puppetry directors are Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, with video design by 59 Productions Ltd, song-making by John Tams, music by Adrian Sutton and sound by Christopher Shutt.
Until July 28
New Voices Nia Callaghan reviews War Horse War Horse at Wales Millennium Centre