Writer: Michael Morpurgo
Adaptor: Nick Stafford
Director: Marianne Elliott &Tom Morris
Reviewer: Katherine Kirwin
Sometimes it seems that our hearts and minds cannot handle or contemplate human suffering and loss on such a momentous scale as occurred in the world wars. Yet if we focus on one story or relationship within the tangled web of the past we can engaged with the whole history; making the monumental personal. Therein lies the success of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book War Horse and it’s subsequent worldwide sell-out theatrical adaptation.
The story follows that of Joey, a colt bought for more than he was worth by a drunken father, reared and trained by his son Albert (Lee Armstrong), only to be sold to the army behind his back for £100. Thus begins an epic tale of an underage Albert signing up to the troops in order to find his horse and bring him home. Their journey takes them through the depths of the battlefield, strewn with dead men and beasts, encountering friends and allies of all nations as they struggle for survival. This play does not shy away from capturing the horror and bloodshed of WW1 nor does it shy away from the seeming idiocy of horses on a battlefield of machine guns; the cavalry with swords drawn charging straight into the face of the future of modern warfare. The wastage of life is heartbreaking to consider.
This show’s massive success is the product of many factors but mainly, its innovative staging and its beautiful puppetry. The staging is sparse, the stage is open and wide which in the first half captures the rolling countryside of Devon but, in the second half, feels like a cavernous pit of darkness on the battlefield. Animated hand-drawn settings projected onto a tear of paper forms the only constant ‘set’ or backdrop,accompanied by the dramatic lighting of PauleConstable and a filmic soundtrack composed by Adrian Sutton. The haunting, beautiful and inescapably British sound of Bob Fox’s folk singing, supported at times by the whole ensemble, evokes a dream of the green fields of home even amid the muddy fields of France. It serves to bring an intimacy to something that can feel so epic.
The skilful versatility of the puppets in War Horse is undoubtedly the reason why audience’s keep returning for more. Designed and developed specifically for this show byHandsprung Puppet Company, their designs for the horses and other animals have created beasts not only of beauty and strength but also capable of personality within the puppeteers’ hands.
The ensemble cast demonstrate their skilfulness as they flit between rôles, accents, puppets and song. It is a mark of the great direction that the stage never feels cluttered despite the number of the cast, and bearing in mind that each horse commands three puppeteers. The acting performances are all solid, although it would be nice to see the actors scale back some of the overblown elements (particularly arm gestures or Allo Allo French accents) which can veer towards hammy at points. Ultimately though, the actors will always be upstaged, as no human skill compares with the scale and personality of the performances from the puppets including the charming and comical goose (Joseph Richardson).
As 2014 marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War the National Theatre’s War Horse seems more poignant and impactful than ever. The humanity and the horror captured in a vast, epic staging is captivating, and will probably to continue to spellbind audiences for many more years to come.
Runs until 20th September 2014 | Photo Ellie Kurtz