War Horse at the National Theatre: A marvellous achievement
The centenary of the World War One armistice has been commemorated in various forms, but the series of tributes would not have been complete without War Horse, the stage hit that debuted at the National Theatre and won the hearts of millions as it toured the world. Based on a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, the play also celebrated its ten-year anniversary last year, so its return to the NT is all the more special, hence the dates have almost sold out already.
The heartwarming story begins with a drunken man purchasing a foal and leaving it to his teenage son to take care of. Young Albert (Thomas Dennis) names the horse Joey and the two grow up together. When the war breaks out, Albert’s father sells Joey to the cavalry. Although too young, Albert enlists in the army in order to be reunited with his beloved horse. Both witness atrocious scenes as they, and every man and horse around them, find themselves part of a battle with no winners.
The story and dialogues are simple in themselves, but it is the war context that makes every detail poignant. The cast is in touch with that melancholy dimension and transmits it to the audience clearly. What makes the show truly stand out, however, is the puppetry and the visual effects. South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company brings to life Joey and his equine war companion Topthorn as well as various birds (including a show-stealing goose on Albert’s family farm). Their dexterity in giving the animals reactions, fears and, in short, a personality, is remarkable. The puppets, as well as the puppeteers, fit in seamlessly without ever being at odds with the action. On the contrary, they add a spark to every scene.
Another laudable element is Rae Smith’s set design. A scrap of paper torn from a soldier’s sketchbook is reprised in the background as a huge canvas of the same irregular shape as the piece of paper, and it becomes a screen that sets the scene. Upon it are moving sketches of the weather, Albert’s Devon house, French towns where the war unfolds and images of battles being fought.
The production relates a story full of emotion that would not at first seem suited for a theatre adaptation, and yet the trickiest elements to translate onto the stage become the most successful. War Horse is a reminder of the beauty of theatre and proof of the producers’ skill in adopting all the tricks of the trade to not only narrate the story smoothly, but to move people using inanimate objects. A marvellous achievement.
Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg
War Horse is at the National Theatre from 8th November 2018 until 5th January 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.