Warhorse is probably the most emotionally affecting production currently gracing the London stage, but it is neither exploitative nor melodramatic, traits which can sometimes transform ‘emotion’ into a cloying and fake sentiment when presented on the stage.
I was sceptical, as one not particularly inclined towards animals (but certainly not hateful towards them either), that this classic children’s tale about a horse enduring the hell of the World War One battlefields of France, would be able to capture my imagination, let alone cause me to shed a tear or two. But Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’s exemplary production of Michael Morpurgo’s novel, adapted for the stage by playwright Nick Stafford, on the large Olivier stage at the National Theatre, totally won me over, I was completely immersed in the world of Joey, a fine, hardworking horse, and his equine and human friends. Joey is brought startlingly to life by three actors cum puppeteers (superb work by Craig Leo, Tommy Luther and Toby Olie), the creature snorted, whinnied, moved and interacted as a real live creature would, it was spellbinding, I often totally forgot about the three men creating this marvellous stage magic, I was simply transfixed by these huge, noble creatures (big enough for a man to happily sit atop them).
Elliott and Morris have an admirable eye for detail, and bring a superb physical aspect to all of their production, not least in War Horse, where they beautifully integrate puppet and human performances, marshalling a large cast to great effect (most certainly this is a spectacle), and naturally incorporating shadow-puppetry and movement (almost akin to dance) into the play. The representations of flying crows, a truculent goose, children, and of course the horses, are all done with stunning puppets of varying sizes and types, created by the Handspring Puppet Company (in particular Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler). The craftsmanship of each creation is second to none, and these models would give this play a striking vibrancy even without the excellent human acting alongside the puppeteer/actors and the models. Particularly marvellous is Luke Treadaway as Albert, a Devon farm boy turned soldier who is Joey’s owner and trainer. His heartfelt tears at the end of the play (and I won’t revel to you what they are for) are infectious, and I, along with many of my fellow audience members couldn’t help but succumb to them. This young man had put so much love and hard work into looking after Joey, he was a friend and companion not just a horse, he even (though naively) entered the horrific trenches in order to seek out his beloved companion.
The adaptation and tone of the production are perfect for a show aimed at family outings (from mature children upwards), and it is truly inclusive entertainment for any age group. This is not only a visually beautiful production, but an intelligent one too. The horror of war is evoked (the shadows puppetry of early tanks at the end were very menacing), difficult familial relationships, our relationship with our environment and the creatures around us, friendship and alienation are all touched upon. Though the trenches and their dehumanising affect on men is an important part of the story, essentially the tale is told from the horses point of view, and somehow ultimately uplifting.
The plot, and its conclusion, is perhaps beyond the realms of normal coincidence, but by the end of the two and a half hours and our turbulent journey, it really doesn’t matter one bit. This is the National Theatre’s Christmas family show, but I think anyone of any age should be able to appreciate this finely crafted (from lighting through design, to the acting and direction) and well executed evening. I found War Horse a naturally flowing and consistently engaging and often delightful, one of the best nights out of the year.