Sunday Classics: War Horse: The Story in Concert – Centenary Concert at The Usher Hall Edinburgh today was one of those rare events where the culmination of many different strands of creativity came together to produce something both unique and powerful.
This special Centenary Concert is one of many events marking the guns falling silent on “The War To End All Wars” 100 years ago this month, and being able to hear “War Horse” author Michael Morpurgo bring life to his own classic story alongside a specially arranged score by Adrian Sutton performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (conducted by David Charles Abell), and video artwork featuring drawings by artist Rae Smith was indeed a rare opportunity not to be missed.
Also part of this multi arts production were actress Juliet Stevenson reading the part of our War Horse (Joey), and vocal soloist Ben Murray. Author Michael Morpurgo read, and breathed life into, the human characters of his story. Choirs from Edinburgh and Glasgow (Edinburgh University Chamber Choir and Glasgow Chamber Choir) conducted and directed by Michael Bawtree completed the final touches to a moving story told in words, songs, music and visuals that for me captured something that the acclaimed stage production of War Horse somehow never quite managed. The stage production really is Albert’s story of searching for his horse, but this really gave us the story as originally intended – by War Horse, Joey himself.
There are some really touching moments here, and a large part of that of course is down to the narrative skills of Juliet Stevenson and Michael Morpurgo. There is something very primitive inside us all that requires stories to be told to us, and when you have story tellers with a natural gift like Juliet and Michael have, you just enter into the world of their story and want to hear the next word that they speak. Ben Murray is the perfect soloist for this story as somehow there is a haunting quality to his voice on his songs that belongs to another time, almost like someone calling out from the past to us today. At times, the combination of music, visual, song and story provided some very poignant moments, and Ben singing “Goodbye Dolly Gray” as our “War Horses” land in France to the true horrors of the war and our on screen visuals add blood red colour to the on screen black and white poppies is one of them.
The visuals of Rae Smith are also an experience in their own to watch on the large screen behind everyone. Rae Smith of course provided the designs for The National Theatre’s production of War Horse. Oddly, I could not help but notice how Rae’s simplified beginnings for a horse reminded me so much of the art of early cave paintings that I have seen so many times in books. There is something very ancient in all of us that we can recognise here, and War Horse itself is a story that taps into us as human beings on so many levels both ancient and modern. The partnership between man and horse is, after all, one of the oldest there is.
Composer Adrian Sutton of course needs a special mention for a wonderful score to this production along with song writer John Tams.
As Michael Morpurgo himself noted at the end of this show, there were people of many ages here, children, parents, and grand-children, and being able to bring the generations together to share and enjoy a common story is something special. One child today having a birthday will never forget Michael and everyone else on stage singing “Happy Birthday” to her while the RSNO played, a very special moment that highlighted what a connection this story has in the hearts and minds of so many people of all ages.
Review by Tom King