Writer: Nick Stafford, from the book by Michael Morpurgo
Directors: Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris
Reviewer: Dave Smith
Since it first opened at the National Theatre in 2007 – an adaptation Michael Morpurgo, the writer of the source novel, thought “they must be mad” to even attempt – War Horse has been playing somewhere in the world almost continually. In that time it has delighted, moved and astonished audiences (and hard-hearted critics and award juries) in equal measure and, if you haven’t yet seen it, you really should. Thankfully, this tenth-anniversary tour carries on until March 2019 (including a brief return to the National for the centenary of Armistice Day), so there’s plenty of opportunity to do so.
At a time when ‘event’ theatre seems to inevitably mean a large-scale musical, War Horse delivers something bigger and better on almost every front. It’s a magnificently conceived, directed, designed and acted piece of theatre that manages to overwhelm most of the senses for most of the performance. From a pleasantly pastoral opening to a full-on recreation of the brutality and noise of World War I (bearing in mind that the source novel was a children’s book, it really doesn’t hold back when depicting the horrors of war), it’s a near perfect and at times almost overpowering combination of drama, sentimentality, humour and humanity. And yes, there is plenty of music as well, written by John Tams and mostly performed by ‘Song Man’ Bob Fox; but no shows are being stopped to make space for it, these are low key, poignant folk songs that link scenes and develop atmosphere. You won’t be tapping your foot or admiring slick dance routines.
The set on which it all takes place is relatively straightforward, although cleverly imagined by Rae Morris with a series of drawings helping to establish rapidly changing locations, from bucolic Devon to rain-soaked WWI trenches. The sound and lighting (by Christopher Shutt and Paule Constable respectively) are at times overpowering – those of a nervous disposition should approach this show with caution.
And then there are the horses.
Nothing you might have read about the horses, nor any pictures you might have seen, quite prepares you for just how magnificent the puppets – designed by the Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa and choreographed by Toby Sedgwick – actually are. The actors operating them are in full view the whole time, and even making the horses neighs, whinnies and snorts, but it’s very easy to forget they are there. The scene in which five full-size horses are ridden across No Mans Land towards the barbed wire and bullets of the German trenches, with their riders being blown one by one from their saddles, is truly astonishing.
Even if the story was merely average, watching the horses is pretty much worth the ticket money on its own; as it happens, the story has not been treated as secondary to the spectacle. Joey is first bought as a young foal in a Devon auction at a vastly inflated price by a drunk Ted Narracott (Gwilym Lloyd), for no other reason than to annoy his brother Arthur (William Ilkley). Ted’s son Albert (Thomas Dennis) forms a close bond with the horse, even managing – against his better judgement – to train the thoroughbred to plough a field in order to win a bet between his father and uncle. However, when World War I breaks out, Ted sells Joey to the army and before long he is being ridden into battle by a British cavalry unaware that the rules of war have changed and that a 20th-century battlefield is no place for a suddenly very vulnerable horse. When Albert hears that the captain who promised to look after Joey has been killed, he lies about his age, signs up and heads across to France in search of his horse.
If you really wanted to quibble (and you really shouldn’t), you might argue that someone signing up for war to look for a horse, and still believe he could be alive after going through all kinds of hell on the way, would stretch the credibility of even the most ardent sentimentalist. You might even have a point. But, frankly, it doesn’t matter. It’s unlikely any piece of theatre can ever be perfect, but War Horse probably comes as close as it gets.
Runs until 7 April 2018 and on tour | Image: Birgit-Ralf-Brinkhoff