War Horse is at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh from Wed 18th April to Sat 12th May, and if tonight’s opening audience are an indication of what lies ahead, then National Theatre have another huge stage success on their hands with this 2018 production (as they did with the sell out 2014 tour).
Written by Michael Morpurgo, and adapted for stage (playwright Nick Stafford) from his 1982 novel of the same name, War Horse is a unique stage phenomenon, and although the film adaptation was a success too, stage is undoubtedly the natural home for this story to be told. Live theatre can, with the combination of the right story and the right creative talents, create an experience that no other media can compete with, and War Horse is one of those very rare occasions where every piece of the puzzle not only comes together, but fits together to create a unique picture that is somehow more than the sum of its individual pieces.
To anyone looking back at history from our 21st century viewpoint the events of the First World War make little sense (does any war ever make any sense though?), but the 19th century mentality of cavalry divisions leading attacks with completely redundant tactics on a 20th century mechanised battlefield make even less sense to anyone. In truth, they made no sense to many at the time, but no one with the power or authority to change anything was listening. Against not only the futility and carnage of this “war to end all wars”, Michael Morpurgo takes a unique viewpoint of looking at the conflict through the eyes of one of the millions of horses “drafted” into military service and the terrible lives and fates that they suffered. Through War Horse we view not only man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, but also to one of his noblest of companions – the horse.
Bringing our principal horse Joey to life as he is auctioned and then brought up on a Devon farm, is, as with the other “War Horses” done with amazing skill of puppet makers and live action puppeteers. Somehow, your mind quickly starts to play a trick on you, and you begin not to notice the human puppeteers and concentrate on the horses. Huge attention has been paid in watching how horses move not only on their own, but together, and when fellow “War Horse” Topthorn enters the story, our story truly begins to take a far darker tone as both are quickly shipped off to the battlefields.
As with all the very best stories, there are multiple stories being told at once here and many layers to these stories, but central to everything that happens is the bond that builds up between horse and human and in particular young Albert Narracott (played so well by Thomas Dennis). Horse and human seem to forge an unbreakable bond of trust between one another, and as the dynamics of family life between his father, mother, uncle and cousin unfold, Joey ends up being sold to the army.
Albert after a while decides to lie about his age, enlist in the army and find his horse once more. A bit of a simplistic synopsis maybe, but you get the idea. Creating a truly believable struggling financially rural farming family at the turn of the 20th century are Jo Castleton (Rose Narracott) and Gwilym Lloyd (Ted Narracott). Contrasting sharply with their fortunes is Ted’s more affluent brother Arthur (played by William Ilkley).
Giving the whole early 20th century country life a sense of “lost times” is having some of our story told in song, and Bob Fox playing the Song Man gives an almost dreamlike quality to the story at times.
War Horse is though at its heart a story of man and animal reduced to living in a hell on earth that no sane person could ever have conceived of in their worst nightmares. Even then though, Michael Morpurgo has not taken a one sided view of this conflict and created stereotypes. This hell on earth is where all men and horses now live and Peter Becker gives a sensitive portrayal of Friedrich Muller, the German officer turned deserter. The fate of innocent civilians trapped in this conflict is not overlooked either.
Somehow, these life sized “puppet horses” take on not only a life of their own, but real feelings to each other and to the humans around them. As an audience we seem to have an in built empathy for these puppets as if they were real and living flesh. That itself is part of the great magic of “War Horse” the story. I cannot, however, stop wondering that if we can so quickly develop that level of empathy for an inanimate object, how can we have so little for our fellow man at times; perhaps if we could somehow find a way to keep that empathy for all living things then wars like this would never happen.
War Horse the production is a culmination of many different theatrical departments and skills combining and with an overhead screen in the shape of Albert’s torn page from a sketchbook (go and see the production and you will understand how central to the story line this is), a second visual story starting in Devon and ending up in the final battlefields is being graphically told with seamless contributions from many artists adding to the overall vision of War Horse designer Rae Smith. Watching ever increasing patches of blood become blood red poppies was one of my favourite moments on this screen. Apart from the occasional letter, this screen is also our story timeline. Superb sets, lighting, sound and specially written music also complete the picture here.
If I could change one thing though it would be that when German, French and British people are together on stage, our story clearly indicates that there is a language barrier between them, and this in itself is causing tensions and misunderstandings. Given that we have our overhead screen I think that having each nationality speak in their own language with translated sub-titles overhead would add to our sense as an audience as to the linguistic isolation that our characters were experiencing.
War Horse is in the end though a stage masterpiece full of emotional highs and lows as our story unfolds. If you can, try to get to The Festival Theatre and see this one (if there are any tickets left ) as it will be at least what you expect and probably much more.
Review by Tom King