War Horse takes the art of puppetry to the sublime. You will believe they are real horses
“What a team we make! Albert and Joey together for ever”
Note: This is my original review of War Horse at the National Theatre in 2007 before it transferred to the New London Theatre and Broadway. It continues to tour.
What Michael Morpurgo’s novel does is to place the horse centre stage, so that episodes in the First World War are seen from an equine point of view. The curious effect is that in this “war to end all wars” you realise that on the opposing side are good men who love horses. You hate what war does because horses get hurt and killed or die of overwork and malnutrition. But how to stage a play where the central character is a horse?
Never for one moment did I think a production based on puppet characters could engage me emotionally but I was blown away from the very first moment of watching the foal onstage. My brain told me that there were three actors managing the colt’s body but in my heart I was convinced that I was watching a young animal running around a paddock.
There are two things to admire about this lovely play. To begin with there’s the sheer technical brilliance of the engineering, the perfection of the horse’s body and how it works — this is what the men talked about at the interval. Then there is the visual and emotional realism, a horse that twitches its ears and breathes and moves like a real animal, eats grass and whinnies and has a human rider on its back: the leap that your imagination can make so that you believe you are watching a live horse — this is what the women talked about at the interval.
Of course this is where subsidised theatre comes into its own. Only the National Theatre has the resources to develop and perfect how life size horses are portrayed on stage. The movement of the animals, even the small goose that was pushed along by an actor, hisses and flaps its wings and is very real, creating a sense of wonderment.
The initial relationship in the play is between a boy and his horse. Albert, the boy, (Luke Treadaway) tries to entice the colt to feed from a bucket. Joey, the horse, is a chestnut hunter, a cross between a strong, maybe a draught horse and a racing thoroughbred. John Tam’s folk music adds to the atmosphere as the young horse is patiently trained to plough to win an impossible bet, recklessly laid by Albert’s father Ted Narracott (Toby Sedgwick). Although Albert’s father agrees he can keep the horse, the father breaks his word and Joey the horse is sold to the army as a mount for an officer. Joey goes to France and Albert is given an unwelcome consolation Christmas present of a bicycle.
In France Joey serves in a battle, sees his rider killed, meets Topthorn a thoroughbred horse and is later taken by the Germans where he learns to pull an ambulance. Joey’s ploughing experience saves his life. Angus Wright plays Hauptmann Friedrich Müller, a German officer and equestrian who rescues both Joey and Topthorn from warfare. Later Joey and Topthorn are made to pull a heavy gun and Topthorn tragically dies of exhaustion. Joey is stranded in No Man’s Land, gets entangled in the barbed wire but miraculously is reunited with Albert, by now in the army but blinded by a gas attack. Joey’s life still hangs in the balance. The constancy here is the relationship between boy and horse. Albert’s father fails him in many ways although his mother (Thusitha Jayasundera) tries for fairness, she is unable to make her subsistence farming husband keep his promises and she tries to explain to her son why.
Nick Stafford has adapted the novel into an ensemble piece with many of the actors playing several different parts. Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler for Handspring Puppet Company have achieved wonders with the horses, made from wicker and wire and leather frames like a design net and with moving joints from withers to fetlock. I remember seeing Equus for the first time and being impressed with the characterisation of the horses but War Horse takes the staging of these beautiful creatures to another level. If I have a niggle, it is the choice of a puppet to play the small French girl Emilie. Unlike the horses, I was always conscious that she was a doll. *
The First World War battlefields are realistic enough to be disturbing and I would strongly recommend that children under twelve are not taken to this play which may of course be why Emilie has to be a puppet! Rae Smith’s design incorporates a swathe across the sky of what looks like torn cartridge paper on which are animated her pencil and charcoal drawings of clouds across the landscape or scenes from the war. Lit from behind, this backdrop is very effective at adapting to different scenarios and the huge Olivier stage never feels too large. Later at the height of battle the torn paper soaks up a stain of blood which spreads until all is stained red. The second act found many reaching for handkerchiefs such is the heightened emotion of the narrative.
I really did not expect to see War Horse as a contender for Best Play, but now I do not see how it could fail to be nominated.
*By 2010, Emilie was played by an actor.
Written by Michael Morpurgo
Adapted by Nick Stafford
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Tim Van Eyken
Directors: Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Designer: Rae Smith
Puppet Design and Fabrication: Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler for Handspring Puppet Company
Lighting: Paule Constable
Movement: Toby Sedgwick
Music: Adrian Sutton
Songmaker: John Tams
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Music Director: Harvey Brough
Video Designers: Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer for Fifty Nine Productions Ltd
Running Time: Two hours 50 minutes with an interval
Closed at the Olivier Theatre on the 14th February 2008
London SE1 9PX
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Olivier Theatre on 17th October 2007