Touring – reviewed at the Lyttelton, National Theatre
Somehow, despite the fact it’s been around for about a billion years, it’s taken me until 2019 to finally see War Horse on stage. Weird right? It’s done the National Theatre, it’s done the West End, it’s done Broadway, it’s done countless other countries around the world and tours around the UK but I’ve always missed it.
In the time that I’ve been busily not seeing it, the show has become iconic. The book on which it’s based has been made into a Hollywood blockbuster (which I did see). Everyone knows roughly what the Joey puppet looks like. He’s probably one of the British stage’s most instantly recognisable stars.
All of which made me head into the Lyttleton theatre at the NT to see one of the last London performances before Joey hopped in his horse box to head back out on tour, with a general expectation that I would enjoy the show, and be amazed by the puppets, but otherwise not be blown away by it. I was wrong on that count: I was completely blown away by it. Nothing had prepared me for how powerful this show is.
What makes blogging about War Horse a bit weird, though, is that I imagine most of you reading this already know every single reason why I was blown away by it. Because unlike me you probably didn’t wait since the show’s premiere in the Jurassic age to see it. I’m not sure, at this stage, what there is left to say about why War Horse is the phenomenon that it rightly is.
But I do want to say something, however brief and repetitive it may be. Deal with it. Mercifully for you lot, there are only three points I really want to make. The first is that Michael Morpurgo’s brilliant book provides one of the most poignant, arresting and humane stories told in any medium, ever. But it works particularly well in the theatre, I think, because it allows the audience to fill in so much with their own imaginations.
The bigger dramatic sweep that theatre allows for fits it very well. Also, it’s just a bloody good story and a completely unique way of telling a very well told one (that of the First World War).Through taking the human perspective away and making Joey the horse the centre of everything, it instantly removes all human notions of what that war was about allowing the stupidity and brutality of the way it was fought to come to the fore. This makes it even more touching. By which I mean you will cry. And, if you’re me, you will cry – and I do mean cry; ugly, shoulder heaving cry – for approximately 80% of the show. I’m not sure I trust anyone who can sit through this show and not cry to be honest. Like, are you dead inside or what?
The second point I want to make is the one that needs making least of all, which is that the puppetry, courtesy of the Handspring Puppet Company, in War Horse is literally insane. It’s no wonder Joey has become such an icon – it’s utterly unbelievable how much of a ‘real’ horse he is. You forget more or less instantly that he is in fact three men in a frame, he is so lifelike (another thing that makes the story all the more face moistening). It’s the detail that does it; the way he can flick his ears and rustle his tail. Shout out also to the goose puppet, who provides some much needed light relief with his implausibly credible and sassy antics.
Finally, this production is just absolute genius. Marianne Elliott was the original director – how much do I love that woman – and what she has devised is brilliant. Much of the credit belongs to designer Rae Smith whose sparse, beautiful set and innovative use of stage dressing give sthe show a thrilling immediacy. The sum total is a production that feels real and immersive: you utterly believe not only that those three men in a frame are a horse but that those two spirally strands of wire are no man’s land. Some of the scenes terrified me to the point of barely being able to watch them (this is a family show and I am 32 years old). The two cavalry charges and, especially, the bit where Joey is trapped in the barbed wire will never leave my memory. They are phenomenally technically accomplished, brilliant storytelling and also Original Watership Down levels of traumatising.
Even if it’s taken me far too long, I’m so glad I finally managed to see War Horse. It’s precisely as good as everyone says it is, if not better, and the best possible way to have started my theatrical 2019.
War Horse has now completed the run at the National Theatre that I saw, but the production is back on tour and you can find details at www.warhorseonstage.com
I saw War Horse at the NT and sat in D19 in the circle, which cost £45 (more than I would usually spend, but the trip was my Christmas present to my parents and, regardless, was worth every penny).