I love going to the theatre. There is something very raw and elemental about sitting before a stage, with nothing separating you from the performance but the columns of dusty light flooding from the lamps above. And the excitement you get when the lights dim is different to the excitement you feel at the cinema, because you are so conscious of the people waiting to be exposed by the rising curtain. Real people who twitch and sweat and blink as you watch. It’s a long way removed from a 2D recording of Danny Dyer doing whatever it is he does. There is nothing to hide behind onstage, which makes utterly brilliant theatre very difficult to come by. However, very very occasionally such a piece of theatre does materialize.
War Horse at the New London Theatre near Covent Garden is one such production. Based on the novel by children’s author Michael Morpurgo, The National Theatre’s production of War Horse is little short of breathtaking, both in narrative and production. The story is set in WWI, both in Devon and war-torn France, and follows the relationship between a young farmhand, Albert Narrowcote, and his horse Joey. When Joey is sold into the army Albert enlists to find him. As with most children’s literature the story line is very simple and accessible, addressing themes like loyalty, devotion and persistence through adversity, but this is anything but a child’s play. Deeply moving and powerfully emotive, the story is beautiful no matter what age the audience.
The acting is also top-notch. The cast of the play constantly rotate the roles, and the fact that all the characters were so brilliantly portrayed is testament to the wealth of talent working on the production. The background aspects of music and scenery are equally well dealt with; members of the cast often held up parts of the minimal set so as not to distract from the the main event, and the folk-based music made sure the audience’s thoughts were ever too far from the play’s rural setting.
But the most spectacular thing about this spectacular play are the puppets (a word which could never do these things justice) which play the horses. Created by the Handspring Puppet Company (based in South Africa), these life-size animals, made from wood and leather, are absolutely astounding. Every single equine twitch and shudder has been studied minutely, from a tail-flick to the gallop, and are portrayed with uncanny accuracy. Each of the puppets is operated by three people at all times, but within minutes of their appearance inside or beside it they seem to fade away, as the horse itself comes to life. The amazing accuracy of the puppets draws the audience into the play in a way I have never experienced before, which made the harrowing parts of the play yet more moving. And there are some very harrowing parts; the scene in which Joey desperately tries to pull himself free from barbed wire was particularly distressing.
It is very difficult not to wax lyrical about War Horse. A combination of touching narrative, powerful acting and unprecedented production make this, for me, the West End’s best show for a long time. One can only hope that the Steven Spielberg’s screen adaptation does this theatrical masterpiece justice.