The National Theatre production based on Michael Morpurgo’s beloved book is stunningly beautiful to watch.
Thoughtfully and sensitively adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, Michael Morpurgo’s wonderful story about friendship, growing up and the pain and suffering war causes is vividly brought to life in Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’s heartfelt production.
As the outbreak of World War One is declared, Albert’s beloved horse Joey is sold to the army and sent to France. The conflict sees Joey forced to play a role on both sides, while Albert embarks on his own dangerous mission to bring his horse back to Devon.
But while it is a story centred around Joey and Albert, the production highlights how much of the story focuses on relationships between characters as well as the true horror and pointlessness of the Great War in the first place. This is particularly highlighted in the moments in which French girl Emilie (Joelle Brabban) and German soldier Friederich Muller (Peter Becker) begin to bond over the horses – it captures the toll it took on many soldiers on both sides of the conflict , coming across as one of many charming scenes in the production. Elsewhere, Albert’s conflicting relationships with his parents – a warm and loving one with his mother, while his attitude towards his father is slightly more fractious are also wonderfully captured in the early scenes.
However, it is of course the marvellous puppets designed by the Handspring Puppet Company that really capture the attention and imagination of the audience – consistently put to good use for dramatic impact, particularly during the terrifyingly realistic scenes on the battle front, with every movement of the horses slowed down for strong effect and expertly handled by those in control of them. Every slight movement from the ears twitching to the snorting makes the audience forget that the horses are puppets and given their own personality.
By combining this use of puppets with the simple set design, effective lighting and powerful music, War Horse becomes a powerful, emotional and dramatic production that is simply unforgettable. Every poignant moment, particularly when deaths are mentioned, is sensitively dealt with – as seen in the moments when the soldiers first land in France to be confronted with a scene that looks like a horror film to be told that this is the new ‘normality’.
Meanwhile, performance wise there was plenty to be enjoyed. Thomas Dennis was delightful as the stubbornly determined Albert, capturing his character’s loyalty to Joey beautifully as well as highlighting the way in which his character grows in maturity as he navigates his way (underage) through the war. Elsewhere, Peter Becker is a sympathetic Friedrich Muller showcasing the mental strain that the war is having sensitively and believably, while Jo Castleton offers a raw performance as Rose highlighted when she discovers Albert has disappeared – a moment which really sticks in the mind.
War Horse on the surface might simply be about one boy trying to find his horse, but given the level of sacrifice made by horses during World War I (8 million horses, donkeys and mules were killed) – it actually feels like a fitting tribute to their bravery and sacrifice. A stunning, theatrical masterpiece that deserves to be seen over and over again.
By Emma Clarendon