War Horse – January 2008


By: Michael Morpurgo (novel) adapted by Nick Stafford

Directed by: Marianne Elliot

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Thursday 24th January 2008

Although I enjoyed this production, I probably found it less good than some of the reports we’d heard, mainly because our expectations were higher than usual. The horse puppets were indeed fantastic, and I certainly cried at the end, but our distance from the stage meant we weren’t as involved as we normally like to be. I had hoped that the size of the production would carry that far back, but I did miss seeing the actor’s expressions clearly. Another reminder that we like to get up close and personal with the action, though preferably not within soaking range.

The set was sparse and effective. At first, I thought the strip of white, torn paper across the centre of the stage was actually in front of a curtain of some sort. As the action progressed, I realised the stage was open to the back, and the way this strip was  lit made it seem to be floating in the air. It also allowed for scenes to be projected onto it, giving us information on the time and place of each scene, and showing some shadow puppeteering for the action that couldn’t be fitted onto the stage. The floor had the revolve painted up as streaks and patches of brown and grey. This very effectively suggested furrows, mud, rutted paths, and probably a few other things as well. A bit of this decoration spilled over to the rest of the stage, which was otherwise plain black floorboards running front to back. I noticed what seemed like a forked tree trunk in the shadows to our left – this turned out to be a plough – and to our right were a couple of boxes. Doors, carts, wagons, and even a tank were brought on as needed.

The key to this whole production has to be the marvellous puppet work. Apart from the horses themselves, there was a goose, running around, pecking at the ground and hissing at people, several birds flying across the sky at different times, a young girl in occupied France who makes friends with the horses, and a rather nasty crow who shows an unpleasant interest in the corpses littering the place. But the horses were spectacular. Full sized puppets, with two men inside them working the legs with hand controls, and another chap at the head, giving them life and movement. They were rarely still, always shifting and nosing at things, as horses do, and even though I could see the person working the head, it was easy to forget that and just see the horses.

I did find it a bit more confusing when Joey, the star of the show, was a foal. He was so small that there were three people working him from the outside, and as they were dressed the same as the actors, I did find it hard to tell sometimes whether they were people holding the horse or non-existent puppeteers. This was especially true at the horse market, with lots of folk milling around. However, we soon got past that, and seeing actors actually riding these magnificent puppets was quite amazing. It was particularly sad when we got to the later stages of the war and some of the horses were bags of bone, dying as they tried to pull the guns from place to place. It was heartbreaking to see them die.

It was certainly a sad story, and I fully expected Albert to find Joey just as he was breathing his last – a truly sad ending. I was surprised when this animal actually managed to survive, despite the hard work, the lack of food and all the other hardships, but then the story is aimed at children. The basic plot is that Joey is bought as a foal by a farmer who’s  in competition with his more successful brother-in-law. He spends all the mortgage money on him, and his son, Albert, trains the horse up so they can sell him. Albert and Joey get on really well, and then Albert finds out that his silly father has bet that Joey will plough a strip of land by a particular Sunday – I forget what it was called. As Joey is more suited to riding than ploughing, no one expects him to win, but Albert keeps working with him (he has a whole week, after all!), and sure enough, Joey manages it, just. Thinking Joey’s now safe, and his, Albert lets his guard down, and his father then sells Joey off to the army as a cavalry horse, just in time for him to be shipped off to France for WWI. We then see Joey’s story, as he gets to meet Topthorn, the other horse in the story, and they’re ridden in a cavalry charge, only to have their riders shot off the top of them. The horses then wander round the battlefield, until a German cavalry officer finds them, and recognising their quality does his best to protect them. The opportunity comes when horses are wanted to pull an ambulance cart. At first, it doesn’t look like Topthorn will handle the harness, but Joey remembers it from his ploughing days, and volunteers. Topthorn then joins in, and the cavalry officer takes advantage of this and a later opportunity to take on the identity of a dead ambulance man, to keep the horses safe on a farm over the winter.

By this time, Albert has joined up, thinking he’ll be joining the cavalry regiment and be able to find Joey, only he’s sidetracked into the infantry, and gets caught up in the fighting. Joey and Topthorn are taken back into service pulling the German artillery, and eventually Topthorn dies. Joey survives, and wanders over the battlefield, until he gets caught up in some barbed wire in no-man’s land (OK, I was crying by this time). The German and British soldiers have a temporary truce to try to recover him; the British soldier wins the coin-toss, and takes him back to their lines, but he’s badly injured. Albert has taken a shell-blast and is temporarily blinded, and both he and Joey end up at the same medical station. As the medical staff are declaring that they can’t treat the horse, Albert is talking with his mate, and Joey recognises his voice, and I can’t go on, I can’t see the keys for the tears…..

(Several tissues later…) Well, it all ends happily, as I said before, and if it hadn’t been so sad, I think I would have enjoyed it more. I accept it’s a sad subject, and I don’t expect it to be tarted up, but maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for something so powerful. I’m still glad I saw it, and some of the images will stay with me for a long time.

One other thing to mention was that much of the Germans’ dialogue was in German, without surtitles. A bit confusing, but nicely realistic, especially as one of the German officers was suspicious of his colleagues who spoke in English.

At the end, all the puppeteers came on as themselves to begin with, and after taking the first bows, they dashed off. I was hoping they’d come back on as the horses, and they did, rearing up, and taking their bows beautifully. I still feel like I’ve seen actual horses on stage. This was a masterpiece in many ways, and I hope they can find some other way to use these magnificent puppets again.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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