I think for any theatre lover War Horse is the ultimate compilation of drama, action, music, emotion and visual impact. Adapted by Nick Stafford, the play has been an enormous success worldwide for over a decade. This is the result of its magnificently raw and heart-breaking recount of the brutality of the First World War – a catastrophe that has had irreversible and destructive consequences that vividly live on in our memory and emotions.
In the past I have longed to see productions that once I had seen them left me disappointed. Thankfully, this play lives up to its reputation, exploring an epic tale of love and loyalty and how both can endure and more importantly survive even the worst horrors imaginable! Sixteen year old Albert Narracott’s witnesses his world being torn apart when his beloved horse Joey is conscripted to serve as part of the cavalry on the hellish battlefields of 1914 France. Despite being too young to enlist himself, he undertakes acts of heroism in the wake of annihilation to find, rescue and return Joey home. An outstanding reminder of the purest fulfilment of humanity and compassion – something that we are too easily aware was forgotten in the terrors of war.
Almost as soon as the play opened, a lone figure appeared on the stage singing very poignant lyrics of:
Only the truth that in life we have spoken
Only the seed that in life we have sown
These shall pass onwards when we are forgotten
Only remembered for what we have done.
In conjunction with these lyrics lies the tune of a folk song heavily associated with an English country quality of distinctly regional accent and style. I particularly liked how this was repeated throughout the play at defining moments of change and/or brutality whilst the action never stopped to make space for it. It spoke clearly of what was being lost by war – the simple, wholesome, kind-hearted and community led lifestyle that once spread across the land is replaced by brutality, mistrust and isolation. This emphasised Albert’s actions as being even more heroic as the line ‘only remembered for what we have done’ brings to the forefront his unselfish and loving motives whilst we begin to question what will the men of war be remembered for?
This wonderful sound functions as juxtaposition to the highly realistic sound effects and flashing lights of industrial warfare. As does the magnificent construction and operation of horse puppetry. Designed by Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa and choreographed by Toby Sedgwick, the puppets in all their splendour were unlike anything I had ever seen on stage before. It most definitely called for a suspension of disbelief as the actors operating them, despite remaining on stage the whole time, disappeared from sight and the neighs, whinnies, snorts, movement and mannerisms right down to the twitch of the ear and the flicking of their tails became wholly realistic. Thus, the moment when adult Joey and other grown horses galloped onto the stage appeared before my eyes as real as you or I. It was utterly outstanding and I remained awestruck for the rest of the performance.
However, this realism made the five life-size horses charging across No Mans Land towards the barbed wires and German bullets even more shocking and gut-wrenching. The horse’s vulnerability magnified the horror and destruction of the war and we begin to see the war from the horse’s perspective. The contrast between these horses and war machines are constantly presented side by side in the play and it is made clear that they do not belong here.
The fear and the pain of the horses which is made even more acute from their realistic mannerisms left many with tears down their faces as the harrowing scenes of the battlefield and the extremities in which the horses endured evoked enormous amounts of sympathy. It was a magnificently conceived and acted piece of theatre that overwhelmed all of the senses. It left me enthralled, transfixed, heartbroken and yet I loved every moment of it. It is most definitely worth seeing!