Saturday 18th November 2017 at Liverpool Empire Theatre.
War Horse is the epitome of emotive puppetry; delicate, nuanced and full of character, the animals of this production are stunning. A National Theatre production which has seen enormous success since its conception, this play, based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel and adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, is now making its way around a U.K. tour. I saw the production way back when it was at the National and I can say that director Marianne Elliott (revival director for this tour being Katie Henry) have brought the story of Joey and Albert to regional stages in all their original glory. Morpurgo’s original novel provides yet another fantastic opportunity for a stage adaptation of a strong story with a heavy emotional pull and of all the Morpurgo adaptations I’ve seen, War Horse is by far the best. In the title role, Joey the puppeteered horse is the brilliant star of this theatrical masterpiece.
In brief, Joey is the surprising addition to young Albert’s troubled family – he’s full of energy and comically difficult to train but no sooner do Joey and Albert form an unbreakable bond then poor regal Joey is sold to the war effort. From there, Joey’s once blessed life becomes traumatic and transient as he changes hands and duties regularly in the line of fire, while young Albert vows to find his horse and bring him home. War Horse is a story about many things; family, community, unshakeable hope and friendship – but it also explores the complexity of war through a refreshing lens; soldiers sent out to kill find tenderness and sentiment for the animals caught up in a man-made conflict. The relationship Albert shares with his horse demonstrates loyalty which transcends species even, so if you’re even partially an animal lover, you’re sure to have your heart pummelled by this story. If you’re not an animal lover however, you may find this tale a little difficult to invest in, but if you’ve ever contemplated the beauty of a horse, admired their elegance as well as their strength, you’ll find yourself immersed entirely in the puppetry of this show.
Morpurgo’s characters have great clarity and heart, with even the most troubled of characters earning some moments of likeability when the war makes equals of every man’s fears. The greatest impression made can be found in the central focus of Albert’s loyalty to his horse; Thomas Dennis engages hearts and minds very quickly, allowing his performance to manipulate emotions all the way to the final scenes. Dennis also plays Albert with emotional dexterity, allowing the younger Albert’s feelings to spill out unchecked while the older Albert still wears his heart on his sleeve but finds an inner strength and a maturity to carry out his plans. Joey is given so much character that it’s impossible not to fear for him when he is out in the hellish landscape of war; never uttering a word, this puppeteered equine envelops us in his story and in those scenes in which there are no human actors, the puppetry mesmerises – heightening interest rather than ever losing it.
Jo Castleton plays Albert’s exasperated mother, Rose, who does her best in hard times and struggles to keep her wayward husband in check. She has raised a lovely lad in the caring Albert and Castleton’s comic timing gives the character some big laughs as the hard done by woman of the house who is downtrodden by circumstance but wholly stands tall in the face of trials. Arthur Narracot is a disappointed, disappointing man who can neither hold his taste for liquor nor his ever doomed gambles in check. William Ilkley plays the role with gently swaying half-assertion; the character serves himself as each moment arrives and although he seems to have loyalty somewhere within him, his whims and his blind self-belief make him a burden. Peter Becker offers an insight into the confusion of war and what it can do to a man as Friedrich Müller; a man sent to fight who finds himself caring more for the horses than the fighting. Joëlle Brabban also offers another dimension to the story as Emilie, the innocent civilian caught up in a war she didn’t wish for. Full of fear and facing language barriers, Emilie and Müller connect over one thing: the horses. It’s a fascinating take on the humanity within man’s inhumanity to man during war time trope and it is desperately poignant to see such kindness towards the animals from some while others treat them with the same cold hands as they do the machinery – the horses being just as tragically expendable as the troops fighting.
Visually spectacular, there is not one moment to criticise when it comes to this production’s bringing to life of large puppet horses – puppets of such stature and so sturdy that they can be ridden by the actors; puppets so beautifully and functionally designed that they mimic the movement of their real counter-part with astonishing accuracy. The true beauty of puppetry is that it can very quickly suspend disbelief when done well – the mind adapts to the visuals and stops seeing the puppeteers within the structure or the puppeteer moving the head in full view – this show perfectly captures that pure and wondrous magic of skilful puppetry. I am deeply sad not to be able to name the specific puppeteers at the performance I saw as the programme lists them in teams and it’s impossible to know who was on – but I will include a snap of those lists to give tremendous credit where it is due. There are impressive sequences in this production which centre on Joey, alone on stage and while this may be daunting for some, Lighting Designer Paule Constable, Sound Designer Christopher Shutt and Director Elliott make those scenes some of the most visually captivating and dramatically striking of the whole show; beloved Joey in a war zone, separated from keepers and in very real danger – very poignant scenes are sure to follow. Combine the impressively communicative puppet direction of Basil Jones and Adrian Koehler with the stark lighting and sound and you have a stunning theatrical visual playing out for a full four or so minutes. Utterly brilliant.
The play’s exploration of the cost of war in the animal world beside the cost of war in human lives demands a careful approach towards the design of the puppets portraying the animals. Basil Jones and Adrian Koehler’s puppet design and fabrication (for Handspring Puppet Company) carries the great weight of this production with knowing wisdom when it comes to creating animals in which an audience can invest their hopes. As with the human actors, the script sweeps through darkness and light, offering moments of laughter amongst powerful dramatic tension and emotive scenes of loss, confusion and longing. The Goose is by now a well-known staple of this show and Billy Irving’s comic puppeteering has the audience tittering away whenever the mischievous bird arrives to try his luck at whatever takes his fancy.
In contrast, we of course have the imposing, healthy, glorious horses featured in the marketing images and they are absolutely mesmerising. But there are other starkly contrasting horse puppets, designed to capture the emaciated, broken state of the equine soldiers after long periods of over-work and poor conditions. The designs are, as is the case with all design elements in War Horse, both powerful and genius in their simplicity ; the materials are harsher, the overall aesthetic unkempt and decaying even as they stand shakily waiting for death. Puppetry Directors Basil Jones and Adrian Koehler, along with Toby Sedgwick as Director of Movement and Horse Choreography, convey with impressive unquestionable clarity that the horses are sentient creatures and that is absolutely key to the emotive punch that War Horse packs. If I hadn’t already been a staunch advocate for all puppetry, the emotional scenes showing the fate of so many of the animals would certainly have made me declare myself a life-long fan of the art of puppetry.
Design choices in this production are masterful and poetic. Above the stage hangs a giant scrap of ripped paper; a design dominating the airspace above the performance space to illustrate the comfortable normality of home alongside the atmosphere and chaos of war. Onto this paper, simple animations, reminiscent of those fading country sketches, paint the scenes of a rural home landscape and through each stage and setting of the war. Hand-written dates appear on this set piece too, offering a sense of authenticity as a real hand writes rather than types, reminding us that the war was very much about real people. Rae Smith’s design and drawings drive the production forward as if it is a sketch book come to life – apt in the light of the sketches made by Albert’s superior, of he and Joey taking rides in innocent leisure prior to the war. The animation and projection design is the work of Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer for 59 Productions Ltd and their simple, emotive illustrations compliment the nostalgic aesthetic of the overall production design.
Set pieces are nothing but rails or stand-alone doors and yet the piece takes us in a journey across borders. The simple rails are held in place by cast members to easily and swiftly evoke an auctioneer’s pen, a ship or a boundary – dispersing the momentary scene change as fluently as they created it and the impact of such deft direction is significant as it cements the overall impression of masterful storytelling as the villagers disappear and the glorious Joey and his counterparts gallop back towards centre stage. Morpurgo’s narrative is heavily supported by the recurring appearances of musical narration (music by Adrian Sutton with John Tamsin as Songmaker) in the style of old, pure voiced country wassailing from Song Man Bob Fox, whose sincere, melodic voice tells of woes and wants. The ensemble cast offer their voices to the scenes back home, giving key moments emphatically gentle atmospheres as the dark clouds of war looms not too far away.
War Horse is a beautiful, devastatingly sad story which captivates, challenges and presents war through new eyes. By following the story of an animal, there is a wordless insight into the traumatic sights and sounds of wartime without the human narrative, and it makes for captivating viewing. It’s a truly brilliant show from all angles and it is not to be missed.
War Horse continues to tour the UK until April 2018 and you can get your tickets here.