War Horse

Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford
A National Theatre Production in association with Handspring Puppet Company
New London Theatre
(2009)

On the eve of the 2009 Grand National at Aintree, the stage of the New London resounds with hoof-beats for its own grand National Theatre opening night of War Horse. Adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, and in collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company, Michael Morpurgo’s fascinating novel about the First World War, and one young man’s devotion to his horse, transfers for its well-deserved West End run to the new London Theatre. The great and the good of the theatre and TV industries are out in force to support the venture. Stars from stage and screen mill around the packed New London foyer, spilling onto the escalators and stairs and adding their own glitz and glamour to an exciting evening.

They are there to share an epic theatrical experience. War Horse is, it seems, unique. Unique in that it draws on the collaborative genius of puppeteer, scenic artist, actor, musician and choreographer to conjure living, breathing mountains of horseflesh out of carved wood and gauze and leather. There is nothing animatronic about these creatures. We are left in no doubt that they are structures, industrial skeletons part-machine part-sculpture, activated by the balletic precision of several trios of physical performers. Structures they may be, but from the first moment of watching the fearful panting of a young foal to the wide-nostrilled horror of a charging battle-horse leaping over the barbed wire of the Flanders killing fields, these life-sized equestrian symbols become as real as the skilful athletes who manipulate them.

Nothing can prepare one for the extremes of emotion that such awe-inspiring puppetry on such a huge scale can produce. As horses lie slain in battle, or haul military hardware through muddied fields, our responses are as visceral as their suffering seems tangible. On every level War Horse plays on the emotional heartstrings, combining our nation’s love of the horse with our collective awareness of the futility of the First World War when the island’s youth sacrificed their lives and futures for the sake of European power-politics. War Horse recreates this horrific world, adding just enough sentimental hope to relieve the overwhelming despair of the wartime moment.

The success of the production primarily lies with the amazing animals and birds that appear onstage or flying through the air. The movement of these creatures is stunningly recreated. Toby Sedgwick’s simple title as director of horse choreography belies the astonishing artistic achievement of this movement. Sedgwick has fashioned a masterpiece of equine movement which complements the wizardry of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler’s direction of puppetry. Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, the overall directors of the production, could not have been better served. Likewise, Adrian Sutton’s haunting music, assisted by the inimitable folk-charm of John Tams as songmaker, adds a new dimension to a narrative already thick with imagery and theatrical magic.

Great horses, but the cast is pretty amazing too. Kit Harington shines as the somewhat reserved though ultimately heroic character who doggedly searches for his one true love, Joey the horse. Willing to face barbed wire and machine guns, gas attacks and interminable shelling by heavy gunfire, Harington’s Albert Narracott personifies the gritty determination of youth in the face of impossible adversity.

Harington is ably assisted by Bronagh Gallagher, playing his mother Rose, whose maternal care and affection are only matched by her grief at the loss of so many young lives. Gallagher brings a simple honesty to her characterization which personifies the strength of all mothers who see their sons depart for war, perhaps never to hold them or kiss them again.

It is, however, the horse Joey’s journey which is the focus of attention. From beloved pet in the bucolic innocence of pre-War Dorset to officer’s charger in the opening salvos of the Great War. From captured German prize-of-war to beaten drudge hauling death and destruction. All the travails of Joey’s eventful life are brought to life with meticulous attention to detail. When Joey is adopted by the German officer, Kavallerie Haupmann Friedrich Müller (played convincingly by Patrick O'Kane), there is nothing to suggest the enemy without. O’Kane’s cavalry officer is as passionate about fine horses as his British counterparts. ‘Them and us’ is subtly transformed into ‘us and us’. Death, the great leveller, is as fearful in whichever trench you lie.

The New London Theatre is the perfect venue for this National Theatre transfer, not least in that the stage mirrors the Olivier in expanse and structure. The vast sweep of the stage allows full rein to the galloping-horse puppetry. The images torn from a sketch book, which form the ever-changing backdrop to the play, evoke an expansive world of sometimes idyllic, sometimes horrific reality. As a theatrical event, War Horse is unsurpassable. As a subtle statement about the horrors of war, War Horse is unmistakable. As a production which delightfully animates an assorted medley of inanimate objects, War Horse is unmissable.

Philip Fisher reviewed the original production at the National Theatre

Kevin Quarmby