Writer: Nick Stafford
From the novel by: Michael Morpurgo
Directors: Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
More than a decade after first galloping onto the stage, the National Theatre’s production of War Horse has been a major theatrical export, having played to over seven million around the world. In the centenary year of the end of the war it depicts, its message of the futility of conflicts (both familial and international) is especially powerful as we reflect on just how present such war-torn people and landscapes remain today.
At a livestock auction in Devon in the summer of 1912, two brothers fight to outbid each other for a young foal that neither of them really wants – the winning bid forces the Narracott family to the brink of poverty, and it is left to young Albert (Thomas Dennis) to raise the horse, Joey, with the plan to sell it later and recoup the money lost in its initial purchase. Twists of narrative fate take Joey and Albert right into the heart of the trench warfare of World War One, providing a backdrop for a story of loss and redemption, with some truly startling moments of visual theatre.
The large-scale puppet horses of the story are played by rotating teams of operators, each requiring three performers to manoeuvre them, and it’s unfortunate that the ease with which the puppets move and whinny and gallop belies the effort and strength required to make them do so. There is something balletic about the way these puppeteers create such a convincing portrayal of animal life (and, alas, death).
In many ways it is the minutiae and detail of the puppetry which is so striking; the flicking of the horses’ tails, the twitching of ears, a mischievous goose (operated by Billy Irving) who earns his curtain call appearance. The collective effect of such small moments build up a truly enchanting and enthralling bigger picture.
A large cast play multiple roles in the rural village and on both sides of the front line of warfare, drawn together by a wandering minstrel folk singer (Bob Fox) whose tender songs set the elegiac tone of the story throughout.
At times the production fights to keep its focus, as when Joey becomes a macguffin in a less affecting sideplot with a German officer struggling with the horrors of the front. It’s commendable for a war story to showcase both sides of the conflict, but here it never quite rises above the ‘Allo ‘Allo accents as a dramatic counterpoint to Albert’s quest to recover his treasured horse.
And the idea that it is Albert’s love for Joey which secures his survival is never fully convincing. By stretching out to cover the full duration of the conflict, the story leaves huge swathes of time unaccounted for, with the Armistice, when it comes, feeling too easily won.
But there are supreme moments of visual splendour, with a full arsenal of theatrical tools being deployed to create some astonishing moments of drama. A sequence in which the horses struggle to pull a German field gun through mud is horrifyingly realised. The death of a lieutenant, shot off Joey whilst charging into no man’s land, is jaw-dropping in its execution.
There are flashes of humour throughout, including during an equine equivalent of the iconic football match which brought fighting soldiers to a rare moment of truce, and if the moralising about war is necessarily simplified, the advantage of doing so is important in allowing the production speak to a younger audience.
Rae Smith’s fluid set is a masterclass in how to utilise a stage, with the thematically significant strip of paper which provides a screen for projection being carefully employed to enhance the drama taking place. Paule Constable’s lighting creates atmosphere with subtlety and style, whilst Adrian Sutton’s music and Christopher Shutt’s sound design smartly complements and elevates the story beyond mere drama into something almost operatic.
Runs until 12 May 2018 | Image: Birgit and Ralf Brinkhoff