The National Theatre production of WarHorse is an extraordinary, tour-de-force of theatre craft. This ‘simple’ children’s story, written by Michael Morpurgo, bursts into life on the stage, freeing the words from the page, and, thanks to the Handspring Puppet Company, creating something ground-breaking and magical. Still touring, 12 years after it debuted at the Olivier in London, with over 7 million people having seen it, WarHorse arrives at the Curve Theatre, Leicester, until 12th October. It’s clever and clear adaptation is by Nick Stafford.
The story follows Joey, a domestic farm horse who is sold into the army at the beginning of the first world war, and the attempts of his adoring keeper, Albert, to find him. Along the way, there are some neighbourly disputes and some threads about different sides in the war, but at heart, it is about Joey and Albert. Out of this apparently simple tale, Directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris have created a moving, complex and physically astonishing production of complete originality.
For those that are unaware, Joey, and his many equine friends are ‘puppets’, but for anyone not fortunate enough to have seen these incredible creatures, the word ‘puppet’ is entirely inadequate. Fully articulated and life-size, each of the main horses requires 3 people to operate them, one for the head, the heart and the hind. What is striking is that within minutes, the audience is able to ignore the humans involved and focusses on the horse. Each flick of the tale or flattening of the ears, each breathy whinny or stamped hoof, conveys the character and emotions of the individual horse through the minute, controlled movements of the body.
In addition to those athletic puppeteers operating the horses, are a few swallows, some vultures and an unruly goose, all puppets who add their own character and some little light relief. The human actors are almost upstaged by the ‘animals’ but the large ensemble cast is superb, taking on many roles each, singing, assisting with stage management of props and bringing to life the scale of the losses of the first world war. As one would expect of a production of this calibre, all the leads are excellent. Scott Miller as Albert Narracott, Joey’s keeper, has an open simplicity which immediately gets us onside and his loyal search for Joey, despite all the effects of war, is heart warming.
The stage is a blank canvas, which is transformed with a few relevant props – a door, a farm railing – to give it place, but primarily it is left open so that the huge horses, and machinery, have space to manoeuvre on the stage. The image of a strip of paper dominates the width of the stage and is used to great effect in creating different scenes, some sketches in pencil from a Lieutenant Nicholls, rolling images of bunting in the streets at the beginning of war, a field of poppies towards the end.
The change from happy farming community, with their day to day squabbles, to the vast, gruesome destruction of the fields of war, is beautifully rendered and achieved primarily through lighting, sound and the manipulation of the horses. Dry ice conjures misty mornings in the Devon countryside but then easily transforms to the smoke of battle. The lighting by Paule Constable creates dramatic intent and movement, whilst the wonderful attention to detail in the costumes underlines the gravitas of this National Theatre production. The score, by Adrian Sutton, is unrelenting and powerful, driving home the vast scale of the war’s devastation. Ben Murray’s portrayal of Songperson weaves a thread of folk music through the production which immediately returns us to the singular, the local, and reminds us of the impact every single death had on every single family.
There is little that has not been written about WarHorse over the many years of it’s run, but for one coming to it afresh, it is incredibly powerful, and still a relevant reminder of the horror that can arise from political escalation. Like a finely choreographed dance, it is beautiful and moving, visually striking and the product of some amazing vision, and incredibly hard work. See it if you can.
WarHorse runs at Curve Leicester 18th Sept – 12 Oct 2019
For those readers interested in learning more about the technicalities of the horse puppets check out our very recent WarHorse puppetry post – with video and text.
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