On the Beat was lucky enough to witness the ten-year anniversary performance of War Horse at the Bristol Hippodrome. It is safe to say that for a performance to withstand the changing climate of the arts throughout a decade it has to be an immensely powerful and relatable production. It must remain a relevant contribution to contemporary culture whilst being a standalone piece of theatre that entices a wide range of audience members. The National Theatre – the founders of this theatrical masterpiece – have created something remarkable, as have they produced something entirely unique that combines so many different elements. Its creators and the multitude of talent that have worked with it throughout the years have contributed to something that is, quite simply, timeless.
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, War Horse was adapted for stage by Nick Stafford. It is a tale of hope, friendship and the profound bond between man and animal. As a result of a feud between brothers, a young Albert Narracott (Thomas Dennis) is gifted with a foal (who he names Joey) whom he develops an instant bond with. Albert nurtures Joey, who becomes a magnificent animal, admired by many in the village. The outbreak of the First World War wreaks this union; Joey is reluctantly sold into the army, leaving Albert no choice but to follow Joey to Europe, into the trenches, the Valley of the Somme and No Man’s Land, in the hope of being reunited.
So how does one stage a play where a colossal half-hunter, half-draft horse is one of the principal characters? Expert, artistic puppetry is employed to bring the animals to life; the puppets are beautiful; handled with profound care, they become part of the ensemble themselves. So realistic are the minute, intricate movements (the shake of a tail, the powerful rear, the twitch of an ear) that the horses are beautifully believable, propelling the audience into an imaginative disbelief that is completely engrossing.
Puppets can sometimes be seen as silly, bringing back childhood flashes of Punch and Judy shows, but War Horse shows how far the creative arts and puppetry have come. With fantastic direction from Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris, breath-taking puppetry design from Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, inspired choreography from Toby Sedgwick and the talented ensemble, a masterpiece has been created. Many reviews hail War Horse as a perfect introduction to modern theatre, and we couldn’t agree more. War Horse will resonate with younger viewers and seasoned theatre goers alike; the whimsical playfulness (found in the jokey comparison to Albert’s horse and his friend’s long-faced girlfriend, a cheeky goose, the enduring and endearing optimism of Dennis’ Albert) provides an upbeat relief whilst the overarching themes of love, hope and pain and artfully explored in the brave look at the damaging effects of war.
The staging, designed by Rae Smith, is simple and rustic yet plays pivotal role. A large stretch of canvas with ripped edges spreads itself across the stage above the action is used for projections of important contextual dates and locations, illustrative Devon fields and farmhouses and then, invariably, trenches, wastelands, war. This rip cleverly conveys the corporeal gashes, cuts and tears of war, as well as looking like a makeshift bandage which might be used to wrap and soothe such wounds. The innovative set is based on Morpurgo’s inspiration for original tale: ‘a tarnished old oil painting of some unknown horse by a competent but anonymous artist’, thus mirroring the torn drawing from Captain Nicholl’s sketchbook of Joey that gives Albert the hope to soldier on. This is but one of many examples of the depth of thought that has gone into this incredible production.
The lighting design was spectacular; switching from soft, rosey sunlit afternoons on the farm with Albert and his foal, to the front line with cold, harsh and despairing blaring lights and shadows – the lighting enhanced the spectacle on stage at all times. The lights cleverly worked in harmony with the puppetry, creating stunning silhouettes of the horses, demonstrating the cohesion and unity of this great production.
Morpurgo states his intentions were to ‘write the story of the First World War, as seen through the eyes of a horse’. War Horse on stage follows the incredible narratives of both Joey and Albert, and their search for each other, separated by battlefields. The beauty of intermingling both narratives is you get a story, as Morpurgo originally intended, that resists the urge to ‘take sides’. This allows the audience to witness the universal suffering of war. WH Auden’s poem ‘Ode’ is dedicated to the young men who fought for their countries where a Captain states ‘Boy, the quarrel was before your time, the aggressor / No one you know’. The characters in the play transcend binary and reductive conceptions of “sides” or nationality. For example, the lovable German Captain Friedrich Muller, played by the incredible Peter Becker gave an emotive and incredibly likable performance of a man missing his daughter, wanting to get away from the bloodshed and violence of the Front. The company came together to embody a sense of community; an integral part of the narrative. The ensemble work was reminiscent of a Greek chorus, with the addition of song emphasising the coming together of not only voices, but people as well. This enhanced the emotive nature of the play as their collective voices unified to create a powerful symphony that transcends borders.
War Horse explores the pervasive and damaging effects of warfare on the individual, personal relationships and wider society. The staging conveys this with a nuanced and provocative staging, with debris of dead horses, the carcasses of empty puppets from the war, left on stage as the scene changes to Devon waiting for word from the front line. The barricade that Albert hides behind to avoid gunfire is the farmyard plough draped in canvas and barbed wire that he taught Joey to work the field. This exchange of scenery and props displays the pervasive and all-encompassing nature of ‘the pity of war’, as Wilfred Owen calls it.
All of this explains why, in the ten years since it first emerged as an ‘experiment’ for the National Theatre, as Tom Morris (one of the show’s original creators) referred to the production in a post-show speech, has gone on to eight record-breaking and tremendous years in the West End, reaching over seven million people across eleven different countries.
This ‘experiment’ is pure magic. It possesses a timeless magic which makes it so powerful. It is a magic that makes you believe that horses are rearing up over the audience, that tank engines are invading the stage and, perhaps most importantly, a magical sense of hope, driving Albert through the war to meet his friend once more. It is this hope in humanity, in love and connection that drives the play onwards, through ten years of critically-acclaimed runs, and right into our hearts.
Check out our gallery to see more production photos.
War Horse continues at the Hippodrome. For more info and to book tickets click here.
Where The Bristol Hippodrome
When 18 October – 11 November 2017
Evenings: Mon – Sat 7.30pm
Matinees: Wed & Sat (excluding Wed 18 Oct) and Thu 19 Oct 2.30pm
Tickets from £22.40
Photo credit Birgit & Ralf Brinkhof