Writer: Nick Stafford (from Michael Morpurgo’s novel)
Director: Marianna Elliott & Tom Morris
Designer: Rae Smith
Puppet Design and Direction: Basil Jones & Adrian Kohler
Choreographer: Toby Sedgwick
Music: Adrian Sutton
Reviewer: Leah Tozer
War Horse may be a show about horses, but it has the most heart, the most heroism, and the most humanity of any show you’ll ever see. The tale of Joey the horse and his boy, Albert, torn apart by war and wrestling to return home together, is told in a visceral, evocative, and immensely moving way with hope and humanity at its heart.
Joey is a horse half-thoroughbred, half-draft, and it’s homogenous to the ingenious design and direction of the production. Half of the experience is pure and refined, a performance that feels real in the acting, the effect and the inhuman affliction of warfare, while the other half is creativity and craft working in front of us to make thrilling, theatrical magic. The horses are played by three puppeteers – a head, a heart, and a hind – that stamp, snort, and stand up on their hind legs like horses, but also think and feel like humans. Joey grows from a frightened foal swatting flies with his tail to a magnificent, fully-grown mount in a moving moment where he rears, braying and backlit, and is first ridden by Albert. The horses grow and gallop but, like humans, they also have to give up. When the war-weary horse Topthorn lays down to die, his puppeteers simply step out and walk away, poignantly leaving his puppet carcass to the crows and the cries of pain from his handler, Friedrich. It’s a stirring moment that strips away imagination and innocence and reveals the stark reality of war, but also the wondrous, moving work of what we’re watching.
This is war in all its brutality, but also its overwhelming bravery: the mechanisms and machines and mercilessness are all laid bare, but so are the men and their mounts, and sometimes the only humanity they have left, is their ability to look after their horses. As Friedrich says, more to the horses than his fellow men, “war is supposed to make us men, but I’m half the man I was”. The men only seem whole again when they come together to help the horses, as when a German and British soldier wave white flags to free Joey from barbed wire in No Man’s Land, neither speaking the other’s language but negotiating a coin-flip for which side will win the horse. It’s a moment of humour amidst the horror, but it’s also a mark of the humanity at the heart of the show.
From the biggest bangs to the most diplomatic of details – blood blooming into poppy petals, crow puppets pecking at the dead, and even a hungry goose gandering in the barnyard – the storytelling is simple but skilful, with hand-drawn sketches on a screen helping to create the setting, lighting that goes from warm and welcoming to stark and dark, and even a singing storyteller, a friendly, folksy Bob Fox, who begins the show with a book in hand as if to tell us a bedtime story. As the boy at the centre of that story, one much bigger, more brutal and bloody than he could ever imagine, Thomas Dennis’s Albert is a hearty, hard-headed farmer’s boy battle-hardened and broken but humane and ever-hopeful of finding his friend in a fine and moving performance. But, at its heart, War Horse is a stellar example of ensemble storytelling for a supremely talented company, where hand-puppeteered horses and humans working in harmony prove there’s hope for all humanity to imagine a world that works together.
Runs until 11th November 2017 | Image: Birgit & Ralf Brinkhoff