War Horse | The Lowry | 16 – 30 June 2018
After 8 years in London’s West End and several sold out tours across the UK, the National Theatre’s production of War Horse has undoubtedly become a British phenomenon.
Part of the story’s charm is that it relies on a heavy dose of nostalgia for a period in British history that is often romaticised. Set initially in rural Devon in the years before the First World War, the play serves up something familiar in the countryside scenes that capture the idyll of maypoles, singing and dancing, as well as time-old woes of a drunken husband gambling away the family’s mortgage money and a housewife struggling to keep a roof over her son’s head. The play was recently adapted for stage by Nick Stafford, in 2007, from Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 bestseller, but it captures the spirit of those times as if it were Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge.
The play’s power and durability, however, comes from its unique mode of storytelling, in its primary focus on animals rather than people. Having a horse as a lead character displaces and distances the often quite petty antagonisms of the human characters, whether in the case of drunken gambling between two brothers or the disputes of the First World War.
The use of life-sized horses, developed by South Africa’s Tony Award-winning Handspring Puppet Company, is by far the production’s greatest strength. The stories taking place around the horses might at times feel like a pantomime (especially in the first half), but the animals themselves are certainly not pantomime horses. The puppeteers deserve all the praise they get for bringing so much life to these creations. They succeed in capturing so much of the depth of the animal’s being and movements that you are able to see the horses as characters in their own right rather than simply being a mechanical device operated by three humans. It’s an artistry that requires precision and elegance to succeed in delivering the magic of theatre and the puppeteers succeeded so well that they received a standing ovation on the night I attended. It’s not just the horses and their puppeteers that are the stars of the show though: look out for a scene-stealing goose that ends up getting more laughs on the night than any human character.
As the play moves quickly in its 2 hour running time from events leading up to the First World War to a span of the entire war itself, part of the challenge for audiences may be keeping up with all of the changes of focus. The tone of the play moves very sharply indeed between the two acts, from its focus on a child and foal in rural Devon to that of the ‘war horse’ on the front line of the trenches in France. It’s at times quite bleak, as the play doesn’t hold back from repeatedly loud gun shots and scenes of death. Repeated cavalry and infantry charges might feel heavy-handed in a play that is trying to appeal to both children and adults. The war does allow the production multiple opportunities to develop its artistry though, such as the tank that is dramatically rolled onto stage towards the end of the play, as well as its use of projections. Hanging above the stage throughout the course of the play is a 25-metre wide strip that resembles a page torn out of the lead human character’s sketchbook.
The sketchbook starts with images of the Devonshire countryside before moving to sketches that detail the war, as well as informing the audience of the relevant dates and places. Poignantly, the projection fills red with blood over the play’s scene at the Battle of the Somme. When the bodies of the soldiers and horses are removed, this tear of the notebook becomes all that is left visible on stage, capturing the sheer wastage of human life and the utter pointlessness of such conflicts and division. By contrast, one of the final scenes of the play offers its most compelling, when the story’s lead horse has its leg caught in the barbed wire of No Man’s Land and a German and British soldier risk their lives running from either side to come to its rescue. Although the two actors are both speaking English for the purposes of the audience, the characters cannot understand each other and the scene becomes touching for what it says about intercultural understanding and the importance of learning languages as well as for what it says about the socially-constructed divides placed between us as human beings. The horse (being neither English or German but simply a horse) is rescued by both because it exists outside of these socially-constructed petty human divisions but we are painfully aware that the horse is also caught in barbed wire exactly because human beings can’t yet exist together as one.
The artistry of War Horse is by far its most memorable feature. Watching the animals brought to life is certainly good reason for a trip to the theatre. Placing a horse at the centre of this war story isn’t only compelling if you are a lover of horses, however. With its combination of human and animal lead characters, the play is more than simply another nostalgic story about the First World War. By bringing attention to a horse’s treatment in such a bleak period of human history, it is the story’s exploration of what happens to the horse because of human beings that puts the emphasis back on the audience. At its heart is a story of how we treat each other, whatever form you may be.
by David Firth