As part of the commerations marking the end of the First World War, the acclaimed adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel returns to the National Theatre eleven years after its debut. War Horse is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, adapted by Nick Stafford, designed by Rae Smith, and produced in association with the Handspring Puppet Company.
Young Albert (Thomas Dennis) rears Joey, a part-thoroughbred horse, even persuading him to plough the fields on the farm. His father Ted (Gwilym Lloyd) is a feckless drinker, whose decision to stay home and look after the business in the last war has left him behind his successful brother, Arthur (William Ilkley). His wife (Jo Castleton) has become resigned to her marriage but fiercely protects her son and his interests.
Once war is declared, Ted smells money and sells Joey to the Army for use as a cavalry horse for sympathetic Major Nicholls (Ben Ingles): Albert vows that they will be together again someday, and eventually circumstance forces the sixteen year-old to follow cousin Billy (Jasper William Cartwright) into battle, and thus the fortunes of both man and horse are followed until the day of Armistice.
By utilising puppetry to bring life to Joey and his fellow battle horse, Topthorn, and to birds, a goose who provides comic diversion in lighter days, and the equine victims of conflict, this production provides an anthropomorphism which stays close to Joey’s narration of the original novel.
His bond with Albert, then Topthorn, and later with the sympathetic German captain Friedrich (Peter Becker) and French girl Emile (Joelle Brabban) is perfectly conveyed, and you quickly forget that these animals are brought to life by gifted puppeteers inhabiting their hearts and hinds.
A sparsley dressed set backed by simple video projection conjures up Albert’s home farm, No Man’s Land, the parade ground, a French village, and a field hospital. The sound and lighting design, the interludes with the Song Man (Bob Fox), and the acting of Dennis, Becker, Castleton and the sergeant (Jason Furnival) in particular, make this production an emotional rollercoaster, which does not outstay its 165 minute running time, and which treats the memories of serving men and animals in conflict with respect.
I previously saw War Horse during NT Live, in 2014, when it was still running at the New London Theatre. It was a rather different experience to this one, but still powerful. If you wish to catch War Horse (2018), then you will need to try for Friday Rush or day tickets for the remaining performances (to the 5th January 2019).
After that, the production continues its UK tour, visiting Glasgow, Sunderland, Canterbury, Stoke-on-Trent, then visits Ireland (Dublin) and New Zealand (Auckland). I wish everyone involved luck for a successful run, and I would urge prospective audiences to go and book for this superb adaptation.
Photo credits: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.