Thursday 19 September 2019

War Horse

Curve, Leicester 

18th September, 2019

"Horse in French is shove-oh.
'Ju shursh Joey' means 'I look for Joey'"

I first saw War Horse about six years ago, before I began writing for this blog. Now on it's second national tour, I am so glad I've been given the opportunity to see and review the play again. The National Theatre production of Michael Morpurgo's novel is both the most visceral depiction of war I've seen on stage, and a masterpiece in theatrical storytelling. 

Nick Stafford's adaptation tells of the special bond between young Albert Narracott (Scott Miller) and his spirited horse, Joey. When Joey is sold to the army at the onset of the First World War, so begins an odyssey through the trenches as Albert vows to be reunited with his best friend. As Joey's trajectory takes him from hunter and cart horse, to the cavalry front line, to a French farmhouse and hauling guns for the German army, we see the horrors of WWI through unequivocally innocent eyes. 

The naivety and unique psychology of the animal protagonist (sentient, empathetic, anthropomophised to an extent, but unable to understand or consent to the action he's subject to) enables Morpurgo, Stafford, and directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris to portray all the atrocities of war in a stark and shocking production that balances sentiment with a ruthless edge that truly stuns. Beloved characters are unapologetically dispatched in a manner that would rival Game of Thrones in both number and rapidity. Yet, the brutality displayed here carries with it an historic truth, lifetimes of remembrance and regret, that affords the narrative a resonance far greater and far more dumbfounding than any fantasy can conjure. This was undoubtedly aided by the tie-in exhibition on display in the Curve foyer. The First Fifty presents fifty soldier cut outs, each decorated by a local organisation and each representing a named soldier among the first group of WWI volunteers.  These men's fates are starkly illustrated in black and white - those with a white back survived against the odds, those painted black never returned home. These concurrent artistic interpretations of the war are incredibly moving. 

Of course, War Horse is as much a technical feat as it is a narrative marvel. The now iconic puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company are a perfect example of the infinite imagination and creative wizardry of the theatrical arts. Joey, Topthorn and co. are never anything other than living,  breathing beings with personalities and individual quirks that endear as much as they enthral. Toby Sedgwick, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler have choreographed every movement down to the tiniest detail. Naturalistic anatomically precise movements, such as the rhythms of pace and elongation of the neck are enhanced by the subtle ways the puppeteers enact the emotions of the horses; a flick of the ears, a swish of the tale, a barely noticeable tremor in the right hind leg - the attention to the minutiae demonstrates an awe inspiring holistic approach to characterisation that rivals any human 'actor'. After nearly three hours in the company of such magnificent beasts, the almost inconceivable notion that the horses are, in fact, inanimate pieces of metal and fabric is, quite frankly, devastating.

While the puppets are absolutely the stars of the show, the production is very much a triumph of teamwork and creative endeavor.  Rae Smith's simple, yet beautiful set evokes the various locations in the story with deceptive ease. Her rough pencil sketch projections display dashes of rustic charm in the early scenes before darkening into the impressionistic hell of the battlefield. Smith reflects a sense of brutality and bravura mixed with the depressing ephemerality of the lives of the young men and their steeds. 

The large cast give committed performances that invariably have touches of much needed humour while also tugging hard at the heartstrings. I'm not ashamed to say I sobbed until my eyes were raw. I mean full on snot-snivelling, shoulder-shaking fits of crying. If you see War Horse and fail to even get the slightest hint of a tear in your eye or lump in your throat then I declare you clinically dead inside. Just kidding. But really, it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by both the story and the transfixing, soul-enriching way it has been brought to life onstage. THIS is why I love the theatre. Anything is possible. 

Over one hundred years since the end of 'the war to end all wars' I maintain that, due to the talents of Elliott, Morris, Stafford, Handstring and co. War Horse is the best and possibly most hard-hitting depiction of the First World War in the English canon. The futility, the loss, the daily toil, as seen through the eyes of an innocent places the audience within the action in a truly visceral way. This is a cliched term perhaps, but I can think of none other comparably to the deeply physical reation I had to the play. War Horse should be at the top of every 'must see' list. 

War Horse plays at Curve, Leicester until 12th October. 
For full tour details please visit: 

The cast of War Horse.
Credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

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