War Horse is an extraordinary, emotionally exhausting piece of theatre that embodies both the essence of the equine and the futility of war.
The narrative boldly recounts the universal suffering that the First World War inflicted on men, women, children and the unsung heroes of the war effort – the horses. Ten million people died in the First World War, along with unknown millions of horses. In the carnage of the French battlefields, the 1914–1918 conflict proved to be a horrific experience on both sides of the frontline. Quite simply, there were no winners.
Former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo was inspired to write War Horse after seeing an old painting of a cavalry charge and realising that by describing the experience of the war through the eyes of a horse he could convey the plight of both British and German soldiers.
Noble steed Joey – who is half thoroughbred, half working farm horse – sees the best and worst of humanity throughout the deadly chaos of the First World War. His eventful life begins as a foal on a farm in Devon, where he is lovingly tamed and trained by his young master Albert Narracott.
Devastatingly, the pair are forcibly separated when war is declared as Joey is sold to the Army and shipped off to France. Here, he serves as a British officer’s charger and, after being captured, on the German side. Unable to bear being parted from his cherished companion, Albert lies about his age and enlists with the intention of bringing Joey home. After inspiring everyone he meets, Joey is found wandering and wounded in no man’s land where the story reaches its emotional climax.
The book, which was first published in 1982, is recommended for children aged nine years and up but its powerful themes of humanity and friendship means it touches readers of all ages. In 2007 it was spectacularly transferred from page to stage by Nick Stafford for the National Theatre, in association with South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company.
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, the theatrical adaptation of Morpurgo’s remarkable story of reconciliation and reunion has been seen by over seven million people worldwide. It has won over 25 awards and is now engaged on its second UK tour, playing to audiences in the 100th year since the end of the First World War.
Without a doubt, War Horse is a phenomenal production that eloquently exceeds expectations. Any misgivings about how plausible the puppetry will be are dispelled only moments into the performance.
Joey and the other horses are life-sized, and amazingly life-like, puppets. They are fashioned out of a wooden frame topped with a sheer fabric skin. Each structure is operated by a trio of incredible puppeteers who skilfully make hooves lift, manes toss, tails swish, ears twitch and nostrils flare.
We initially meet Joey as a foal. This skittering, spindly-looking chestnut colt is extremely nervy yet inquisitive. He is eventually put at ease by Albert (Thomas Dennis) who tenderly gains his trust and gets him enthusiastically tucking into a bucket of oats.
Joey is a magnificent sight to behold. As a foal, he stands adorably alongside the performers who control his movements. His subsequent transformation from cute foal to striking fully-grown horse is a magical moment, which sees the rearing adult Joey dramatically appear.
Working in seamless synchronicity, one operative takes charge of Joey’s head while a second powers his heart and a third directs his hind. The balletic precision of the puppeteers, informed by the ingenuity of “Director of Movement and Horse Choreography” Toby Sedgwick, ensures that the creatures before us truly are an equine reality. They trot, canter, gallop, charge, buck and rear with all the grace and power of real horses. They breathe and pant and snort. They are expressive and full of character – as is the giddy goose who is intent on getting access to the Narracott family’s farmhouse. Swept up in theatrical spectacle, it is easy to forget that they are not real animals.
Among the people in the human roles, Jo Castleton is warm and witty as Albert’s mother, Rose. Elsewhere, Peter Becker sensitively and convincingly portrays the mental anguish that German officer Friedrich Müller experiences when reflecting on the callousness and pointlessness of war. His scenes bonding with French girl Emilie (Joëlle Brabban) over the horses are particularly poignant and persuasive.
Although the fascinating narrative of War Horse explores various relationships, the greatest friendship is the one between Joey and his young master, Albert. Thomas Dennis’ deeply felt performance as Albert cogently conveys his devotion to his beloved horse and his determination to find him. Dennis thoughtfully and appealingly navigates his character’s growing maturity – from naive farm boy to uniformed solder – and carries much of the emotional weight of the whole show.
The sets are minimal but effective, with designer Rae Smith’s line drawings adding quirky personality throughout. Events unfold to haunting, evocative music and stirring folk songs – punctuated by startling gunshots and explosions.
War Horse is a moving and imaginative production that charts the experiences of a horse who sees the best and worst of humanity. The epic drama evokes an array of emotions, and there are certainly amusing moments that will make you smile, but you really must go prepared with plenty of tissues!
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes, including a 20-minute interval.
Recommended for ages 10+.
War Horse continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 6 October 2018.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.