Many audience members weep openly. When the play reaches its moving climax, it sends them to their feet in rapturous applause.
In the somewhat blasé world of London theatre-going, this kind of emotional empathy with what’s happening onstage is a rarity. And when puppetry is involved, one might imagine further barriers to connecting viscerally to what in essence is a battlefield horror story.
But War Horse – the latest jewel in the crown of Britain’s National Theatre – is a horror story with heart. It’s a brilliantly realized stage version of Michael Morpurgo’s acclaimed novel about a Devonshire farm horse named Joey who is sold to the cavalry and thrown into the carnage of the First World War. There, after suffering dreadful ordeals, he ends up reunited with the humble farm boy who has enlisted at the age of 16 with one goal in mind: to find the beloved animal from whom he has been parted.
But it’s not just another tenderly wrought story of a boy and his animal. It is also a searing examination of an almost forgotten chapter from the First World War.
When you watch the lacerating scene where members of the cavalry are mowed down by the Germans’ mechanical might, you can’t help but recall the idiotic assertion by the British military establishment that the machine gun had no stopping power against the horse. The grisly truth is that between the years 1914 and 1918, a million horses were sent across the English Channel to France – and only 62,000 returned. War Horse tells us what it was like for them.
They were used as cavalry horses, for pulling guns and ambulances; in the battlefields of the Western Front they were essential to the armies on both sides. I discovered also that at the end of the war most of our surviving horses were sold off to French butchers. Here was a strong story, I felt, the story of how it was to be a horse in the First World War.
And so I wrote War Horse, like most of my novels a book that is as much for adults as for children. Now, 25 years later, War Horse has been turned into a play at the National Theatre. It would be difficult to imagine a production of greater ambition and complexity.
The puppetry miracles are wrought by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. There’s a touch of the abstract in these awesome, larger-than-life creatures whose components include a flexible bamboo framework, translucent skin and the brilliant manipulations of teams of puppeteers – yet they emerge as intensely real, both physically and emotionally, in the toss of a mane or the pricking of the ears or in the basic flexing of the loins in preparation for a charge.
Other puppet imagery also emerges, ranging from the comical – in the form of a cranky farmyard goose – to the horrific – in the moment when a carrion crow descends on a dying horse.
This is an astounding production with emotional resonance, performed by an exceptional company of actors.
Full review at National Post.