Some theatrical experiences leave you breathless, gasping and wishing the interval would hurry up and let you back in for the second ‘coming’. War Horse is one of them.
I was never allowed a horse. We lived on a farm, surrounded by 2,500 cows and yet, the beautiful horsy beasts scared ‘Farmer Dad’. Maybe if he’d seen War Horse he’d have changed his mind and seen the beautiful form (and nature) beneath the mane. It’s too late my horse dream now, but for one magical night at the National Theatre, people can immerse themselves in a dream of another variety; The story of a young man and his faithful four legged companion takes us on a journey through poverty, loneliness and war.
War Horse is no fairy tale and is also not for the faint hearted. The new production is based on the gripping World War One novel by Michael Morpurgo. The play, adapted by Nick Stafford, tells the story of young Englishman Albert who loses his beloved horse Joey to the cavalry. Unable to live without his friend, Albert heads to the war – straight into the firing line. The war scenes are gut wrenching, and the suffering of man and beast intense.
The audience tonight is a mixed one. The old and the young mix in the comfortable surroundings of the Olivier Theatre. There really isn’t a bad seat in the house. Before us, the magnificent stage with its rotating centre is the blank canvas upon which actors bring elaborate life-sized puppets to life. You’ve got to hand it to the Handspring Puppet Company – they are masters of their craft. Horses whinny, flex, canter and display all the characteristics of the real thing. Not since Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake have I seen such complete immersion into a species’ mannerisms. Man and machine blend perfectly. This is the grown up version of the childhood dream where puppets come to life when the lights go out. Special mention must go to ‘Goose Man’.
I am stunned. The audience is stunned with me.
The actors’ stamina is impressive. They sing their way through Irish ditties and act their hearts out during the evening’s show. I can fault no one. Sometimes, reviews flow freely through fault picking alone. Tonight, there are none. This is the result of several years of development, and months of rehearsal. Extreme physical and emotional effort goes in – not a sign of strain comes out.
I wasn’t alive during The First World War but the horror and futility is clear. As the tools of horror and violence evolve, the animal’s pain does too. The view of war from the horses’ eyes goes beyond the guns, the barbed wire and the tanks and straight into the loyal hearts of the cavalry. The bravery of men and their horses in the snarling face of danger is something we should never forget. A play such as this one keeps their memory alive.
A large white screen cuts its way across the rear of the stage. An open wound? A ripped page? Or maybe it’s just a clever base on which to project the silhouette of changing scenery. There’s no real blood and guts but elaborate lighting and sound cause more unrest than any amount of fake red goo could muster.
Spell-binding, magical… this is by far the best show of the year. My eyes leak genuine tears as the three hour spectacle draws to an end and the audience rises from to their feet to applaud the cast and their puppets. As corny as it sounds, for three hours they are alive in our hearts. It will be a sad day when they hang up the creatures for the last time… until then, make sure you see this epic play come life.