In Park Lane, London, stands the Animals In War Memorial, honouring all the animals that served, suffered and died alongside British forces in the conflicts of the 20th Century. It is estimated that 8 million horses died in the First World War, who were used to transport ammunition and supplies to the front – they not only died from shellfire, but also from terrible weather and appalling conditions. It is against this backdrop that the National Theatre’s production of War Horse is set.
Now on its second UK tour, and based on the 1982 best-seller by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse follows the story of Joey, a Draught-Thoroughbred cross, bought unwisely by Ted (Gwilym Lloyd) in a drunken competition with his brother. It is Albert (Thomas Dennis), son of Ted and his wife Rose (Jo Castleton), who raises Joey – until Ted sells him to the cavalry on the dawn of the First World War.
What follows is a moving and incredibly special piece, which takes the audience through a narrative of conflict, humanity, suffering, and survival. There was a sense of being truly welcomed into the story. Bob Fox as the Song Man, with his nostalgia-inducing voice, ushered us into the tale, led us through, and tied each scene together – alongside the lack of blackout between scenes, this created the feeling of a continual illustration or painting, evoking the importance of the sketches of Joey, sent to Albert by Lieutenant Nicholls (Ben Ingles), which he carries with him through battle.
An understated set featuring beautiful projections and animations, designed by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer, allowed the strength of the performances to shine through. The work of the cast was skilful and pacy, and the audience were safely carried in their hands the whole way through. Jo Castleton gave an emotional performance, carrying the full weight of all the women left behind in towns and cities by their sons and husbands who may never return. Thomas Dennis was charming and brave, giving us no choice but to root for him in his quest to be reunited with his “Joey-boy”. Perhaps the most moving performance, however, was the work of Peter Becker as Friedrich Müller. It is here that we see the real pain and suffering of the men on both ‘sides’ of the war. Here we see the true exasperation and exhaustion of men who were fathers, sons and brothers, regardless of nationality. We also see the true bond between human and horse. It is the horses who unite humanity and drive the survival of the characters.
Therefore, there is one stand-out performance of the night, on which the production truly hung – the puppetry of the Handspring Puppet Company. Under their influence, the wooden shells of horses came alive, utterly convincing from each tail swish, to every foot stamp. Their work is truly commendable and awe-inspiring. By the end of the performance, it was easy to forget that the horses on stage were, in fact, just people manipulating a horse-shaped frame. From the star Joey, to the down-trodden horses pulling the field gun, each puppet was finely tuned and believable. Each puppeteer should be mentioned for their incredible work. Special mention must go to Billy Irving as the Goose, whose comic relief was a welcome and entertaining presence in such a harrowing story.
If one was to poke holes in the piece, it could be said that, at times, the production did feel over-rehearsed. The energy and nerves often experienced at first-night performances were not felt. This is not to say that the piece was not compelling, but at times it felt that the production was so highly polished, that it lost its texture. I longed for more rawness, more edge.
That being said, nothing could take away from the piece’s emotion, skill, and passion. What we are presented with is a story of war, but also a story of love. The bonds between human and horse act as a mirror for the bonds between humans, in a time of conflict and uncertainty – not entirely unlike the world we live in now. I am reminded of the poem A Soldier’s Kiss by war poet Henry Chappell, and its final stanza:
No honours wait him, medal, badge or star,
Though scarce could war a kindlier deed unfold;
He bears within his breast, more precious far
Beyond the gift of kings, a heart of gold.
War Horse is playing at the Festival Theatre until Saturday 12th May, tickets starting at £18