Adapted by Nick Stafford and co-directed by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris (associate directors of the NT), the play was originally developed in the National Theatre Studio, the theatre’s research and development arm, dubbed ‘the engine room of the theatre’. The play tells the story of Joey, a horse bought by a drunken father in Devon to spite his brother. His son, Albert Narracott, raises and trains the horse until it is sold to the army at the outbreak of WW1 and shipped to the front line in France. The story follows Joey’s journey through the war and Albert’s quest to find his beloved horse when he runs away from home and enlists to the army. Shipped across the channel, charged into battle, captured and made to work by the enemy, lost, and found again in No Man’s Land; Joey’s experiences are horrific, in conditions which Murpurgo is keen to make us aware of.
Created by Handspring Puppet Company, the central character who when we first meet him is a sprightly foal bounding around the Devonshire farm, quickly becomes a spectacular fully grown horse. The life sized skeletal structures of the horses are each operated by three puppeteers, with great precision, right down to the neighing of the bucking horse and rhythm of the hooves galloping across the New London’s vast amphitheatre’s stage – the perfect venue for this play. The horses are so huge that actors are able to ride them on stage, a feat impressive in itself. In the accuracy with which these horses are operated by actors, you can also see brilliant human qualities of the horse – intentional or unintentional (the fact that the horses are played by humans) – and see Joey understand as Billy talks to him – even though the horses were the fighters in the First World War that had no clue of what was actually going on.
You might think it is hard to act alongside such precise studies of the equestrian roles, but in the playing of their variety of characters, including soldiers on both sides of the fighting, the ensemble give as much detail to their human characters as the perfectly mastered puppets. Kit Harington’s emotional performance as Albert is tremendous and Bronagh Gallagher’s portrayal of his mother is touching, and very easy to associate with.
The action fits beautifully into Rae Smith’s poetic set design, spectacularly illuminated by Paule Constable’s lighting design. Like Morpurgo, Smith was inspired by the same ‘tarnished old oil painting’ from 1914 of a horse named Joey by artist Captain James Nicholls. A piece of sketch book torn from a page of character Nicholl’s sketchbook is hung across the stage – a 25-metre wide production screen – on which video and animated sketches are projected onto, setting the action in its various locations. The simple and beautiful set combined with striking lighting is a piece of art in itself that allows the audience freedom to imagine the detail of the setting in which the action was taking place.
Live songs and a musical score by Adrian Sutton plays a part in and seamlessly underpins moments of the action in a film like manner which draws the audience into the world of the play, despite being sometimes over used, occasionally ruining moments which should have been spine tingling. As Albert’s mother rushes out of the house to find him gone – escaped from his home to join the army – and she begins to break down, a Hollywood-esque piece of music kicks in, almost demolishing the gritty reality and tension that the actors had built up over the duration of the scene.
Amidst the heart-wrenching and explosive scenes of war were touching moments of humour, from the bellowing Sergeant Major at the opening of the second act, played by Howard Ward – characters who, despite being a seeming stereotype, did exist – to the comical, garden bound goose of the Narracott household.
What makes this play so moving is when we witness that that during the time of the First World War in which millions of soldiers died fighting for their country, moments of humour, compassion, comradeship and love endured across both sides through the hardship.War Horse’s breathtaking and passionate portrayal of this story through a horse’s eyes is a stunning piece of theatre and a must-see event.
At The New London Theatre, Drury Lane, London WC2B 5PW. Performances: Monday – Saturday at 7.30pm; Thursday and Saturday at 2.30pm.
The National Theatre Box Office 020 7452 3000.www.nationaltheatre.org.uk. New London Theatre Box Office 0844 412 4654.