War Horse – why this one will run and run; comment

13th June 2011

This tale of the sacrifice that soldiers and their equine comrades made in the First World War now has a US audience enthralled. What’s the secret? First published Daily Telegraph, June 13, 2011

What is it about War Horse? How is it that a show that sounded technically impossible on paper – theatricalising a children’s novel (by Michael Morpurgo) that gives a horse’s-eye-view of the First World War – has done so phenomenally well? What is it that makes grown adults weep, and silences to awe the most unruly teenager? What has taken it from being a surprise British success to a stalwart that has raced to victory in that toughest of theatrical meets, New York?

First it caused a stampede at the National in October 2007, following almost universal critical approval. Then a well-deserved West End transfer followed that looks set to run and run, making millionaires of its core creative team – it reportedly played to record-breaking 97 per cent capacity in 2010 and has been seen by more than a million people, including the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Now six Tony Awards, entirely merited and wholly eclipsing its two Olivier awards, mean it is almost certain to become a thundering hit Stateside, too – and that is before even greater interest is ignited by the Steven Spielberg film, partly inspired by the production, that is scheduled for release at the end of this year.

So what is it that seems to be resonating with audiences? It’s not as simple as saying: here’s a perfect family show, dealing with some unpalatable truths about a terrible chapter in human history in a palatable way – using puppets.

Yes, the horses, made of bamboo skeletal frames and gauze, embellished with plywood and bicycle brake-cable, nylon cord and leather, controlled from inside and out, sometimes mounted and ridden, are extraordinary.

Immense, yet vulnerable, manifestly man-operated yet exquisitely lifelike – graceful to the core – they are a key component of the production’s wow-factor, a joy for adult and child alike. And it is only right that Handspring Puppet Company, from South Africa, was given a Special Tony Award, joining the five others handed out for Best Play (author Nick Stafford), Best Sound Design (Christopher Shutt), Best Lighting Design (Paule Constable), Best Scenic Design (Rae Smith) and Best Direction (Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott). Sunday night’s triumph is a vindication for an artistic shift at the National Theatre under Nicholas Hytner towards the “total” theatre experience, in which every creative element is stitched seamlessly together.

It is a sign of just how much care and attention was devoted to the visual impact of the horses that if you do the backstage tour at the National, you’ll encounter the forlorn sight of the mother of Joey, the equine hero of the piece whose enforced separation from – and final tear-jerking reunion with – his young farmhand owner, Albert, amid the horror of the Great War trenches forms the heart of the story. Apparently, her presence was deemed to detract from the effect of seeing Joey grow from being a stiff-limbed foal to a fully rearing and endearing young stallion. So she was dropped from the production at the last minute and has never taken her bow.

Yet it is too easy to attribute the power of the show to its meticulous external trappings. Let’s not forget that when Morpurgo – who himself abandoned an attempt to adapt his 1982 book for the big screen – learnt that the National was keen to create a stage version, using puppets, he thought they were “mad”. Why? One assumes because that approach seemed to run against the grain of what he wanted to do with the book. Inspired by conversations with Great War veterans in his local Devon pub, one of whom, a former cavalryman, confided that he coped by sharing his hopes and fears with his horse, the novelist wanted to give voice to that unspoken-of intimacy, along with the gut-wrenching reality of seeing millions of loyal beasts being blasted to oblivion, in common with their masters.

The paradox of the National production is that by rendering Joey mute, and getting inside the head of a horse in a literal way, this version still honours, rather than travesties, the original. Where Morpurgo relies on anthropomorphising Joey to talk to us, the National version gives us a dumb-show that speaks volumes. Although it is very different from the book, it gets to the essence of what makes it great – articulating in an ineffable way the combination of loyalty, love even, and shared innocence, a solidarity, that could exist between one man and his charge. At one level, it is a far-fetched fable – and yet we read it, in the theatre as much as on the page, as an archetype touching something very real and deep-rooted, primal even.

The success of the NT War Horse lies in the fact that it is a play of feeling, and a play of ideas. It has the epic qualities of that enduring, song-filled masterpiece about life in the trenches, Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What A Lovely War. It also has all the nuances of subtext, and unspoken declarations, of the most widely revered play about the horror of the Western Front, R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End.

I would argue that the theatrical version is more sophisticated than the book. In the shared act of storytelling, with all the theatrical artifice laid bare, the audience must harness its own imagination to make the world come fully alive. Rather than being a cheap excuse for weepy-eyed sentimentality, the show reins in unearned emotion by making us constantly aware that this adventure between boy and horse is an oblique way of broaching the impossible-to-fathom slaughter of the Great War. Behind this risk-taking theatrical enterprise stands the more immense backdrop of the courage and sacrifice of those who served, and lost their lives – soldiers as well as their equine comrades – in the war to end all wars.

What you get is the feeling that everyone on stage has come together to work in service to something greater than themselves. That is what makes the piece so moving. In seeing performers tending to the “horses”, you are reminded of the relationship between mankind and nature that was so brutally upended by the militarism of 1914-1918, and for a few heart-rending hours that damage is both acknowledged and, by an act of remembrance, fleetingly repaired.
Will Steven Spielberg – who has such great form depicting the carnage and mayhem of the Second World War, from Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan through Band of Brothers – be able to get close to pulling off the same feat with his DreamWorks film? They will be using real horses, those theatrical devices won’t apply – but I’d wager that he will.

For Spielberg, whose fascination seems to go to the heart of why American audiences are taking to War Horse so keenly, this is as much a means of honouring the relatively forgotten soldiers of that war as its unknown equine masses. So, with Richard Curtis and Lee Hall (of Billy Elliot fame) scripting, he will be looking to sound the depths of the lost generation’s pain. And that is made easier rather than harder by taking the narrative lead from a horse called Joey.

This article was originally published here

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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