My friends and I recently made the car trip to Dublin to see the widely acclaimed WarHorse. I had seen the show before, taught the novel, adored the movie and even spent a week on holiday in the beautiful Castlecombe as a result of the movie. This all being several years ago, watching the stage show again was a treat that I was very willing to relive.
There is something about theatre. It is in the moment. It is expensive in both time and money so you cannot over indulge making every trip special. If a play or musical is powerful, you cannot but be impressed every time. WarHorse does just that. This time we had seats very near the front. As with any theatrical show, proximity to the stage makes all the difference but particularly for a dialogue heavy performance. Nuances of stagecraft are not lost, as they might if you are in the gods, and you are afforded the chance to fully enjoy the light relief provided by the masterfully led puppetry of an inquisitive, aggressive farm yard goose.
Several years ago, I wrote about a tour I took of the National Theatre. On this backstage tour, the pride the theatre take in their award winning War Horse is easy to see. Strung high over the backstage corridors is the creation of Joey, the leader of the unforgettable, innovative and iconic horses designed for the show. The guide tells us an anecdote. On the Queen’s Jubiliee, as her Majesty was paraded exhausted from pillar to post, she was boated along the Thames and is claimed to gave given a rare smile when she spotted high above on the National Theatre roof that Joey was on display out of respect to her highness. We all smiled hearing it.
Watching the show again, it is simple to see why she would be moved by the sight of the horse. The story celebrates the adoration that can exist between human and animal and the strength and power in loyalty. The theme is more potent due to the physical setting largely being WW1 based with painfully emotive moments in the Somme Valley. We see how an animal can evoke the best part of humankind just when humans are treating each other in the way we would have termed as ‘animal.’
Highlights include the accompanying vocalists. Choir singing requires little more than the human voice itself to rise emotion. Even though I knew what was about to happen, I almost stood to applaud Joey and Albert’s triumphs over adversity accompanied by authentic and most moving musical talent in the ploughing field.
The show allows moments to stand absolutely still in time. Frieze frame is employed to capture the poignancy of the many naive, optimistic young men signing up to enlist in what would be the most ugly and gruesome of wars, many encouraged by the accolades proudly worn by fathers and grandfathers in the 19th century. The hardest of hearts would twist as a crowded scene of seeming joy and excitement is frozen in time to allow the audience register that this group would never would again be together. Most of these young men would not survive and those who did would never be the same again. Regret and pain would colour the memories of those former times of safety and innocence.
The dramatic techniques of frieze frame is used again and again in battle fields, as the director forces truth such as the viciousness of barbed wire’s brutal effect on the horses and the utter futility of a cavalry in a machine gun war which would result in the slaughter of both people, horses and civilisation.
I can see how you would be proud of a story that is honest in telling you that the young men in trenches, from all over the world, would have been friends in another time and place and not filled with hate, given guns and told it was patriotism to maim and destroy.
I keep reminding myself- it is a kid’s story. It is for young people. I see cynics analysing the hope present in the piece- this wouldn’t happen in reality…that isn’t possible. I think that the need a story about hope against all odds more than most. Staged War Horse will give you that.
Puppetry is the master skill at work here. You will rarely get to see such mastery as pieces of mechanism are brought absolute, breathing life in the form of the most beautiful horses and farmlife. Stage presence of the grown horses alone is breathtakingly powerful. You forget they really are not breathing beings.
In total, the lessons of the tale are in childspeak but adults learn too. Murpurgo’s story is simple in narrative contrasting the harrowing truths viewers must face. The show is a masterpiece in drama and makes powerful theatre. Go to it. If you are disappointed, then theatre is clearly not for you!