Michael Morpurgo War Horse
***** (5 stars)
War Horse tells the story of Devon farm boy Alfred Narracott and his horse Joey between whom a deep bond develops as the foal grows. When war is declared in 1914, and a recruiting party comes to town, Alfred’s liquor-liking father sees the horse as a source of much-needed money and sells him to the army – an officer’s horse fetches £100 – oblivious to his earlier promise that Alfred would be allowed to keep the horse for ever. Alfred is distraught, but Lieutenant Nicholls promises to ride Joey himself, and take care of him: he gives Alfred a drawing of himself and Joey. When Alfred learns on Christmas Day that the Lieutenant has been killed in battle, he rides off on his Christmas bicycle to enlist despite being only sixteen, determined to find Joey and bring him home.
Up to this point the story has been pretty rural and bucolic, with the rivalry between Alfred’s father and uncle being the focus of the drama: now it gets really nasty as the horrors of war for soldiers, horses, and civilians caught up the fighting are graphically portrayed. Much of the second act is, to my surprise, seen from the German side: Joey and another magnificent cavalry horse, Topthorn, have somehow made their way through the battlefield to the German lines, where a sympathetic cavalry officer, Friedrich Müller, who is sick of war, hides them and himself as part of a horse-drawn ambulance unit. His plan works well – until he is recognised by a fellow officer who forces him to make the two horses pull a gun cart instead, to assist the two skeletal beasts who are dying on their feet.
Interwoven with Joey’s story are Alfred’s attempts to find him: graphic and horrifying depiction of life in the trenches, and the fragility of each man’s hold on life. He makes a friend, David Taylor, who writes to Alfred’s parents for him – but he, along with all their comrades, dies as the line of men is ordered to advance, slowly, at the enemy lines. There are touching moments as soldiers from each side encounter Paulette and her daughter Emilie, whose farm is in the middle of the battle, and moments of gallows humour as ordinary men try to cope with the nightmare in which they find themselves. I won’t tell you the ending – you must come and see for yourself.
This National Theatre show made me so ANGRY: the stupidity of war, and the insanity of sending men on horses charging towards enemy lines equipped with machine guns and defended with barbed wire. At one point Friedrich says that he has had to shoot 15 horses that morning because they were inextricably entangled in the barbed wire. Another officer feels Friedrich is more concerned for the fate of the horses than for all his comrades who have been killed – but the horses had no choice, and no way to protest: at least some men found a voice to condemn this madness.
Technically the show is brilliant. The horses are stupendous – three puppeteers play the head, heart, and hind quarters of Joey and Topthorn, and create a living animal even though one clearly sees the people manipulating the puppet: Handspring Puppet Company at their transcendent best. There is light relief from the Comic Goose at the Narracott farm, and shivers from the crows feasting on the battlefield. The horrors of war are pitilessly created: light and sound batter us, creating the intensity of the barrage of artillery, underlining the helplessness of the horses exposed to these horrors and slaughtered in their thousands, and the tragedy of the men trapped in the trenches, waiting for the next attack or the order to advance, insanely, into the enemy lines.
The large cast play a multiplicity of characters, switching nationality and identity with ease. Bob Fox, the Songman, links the scenes with pertinent commentary, ending as he began with “we are only remembered for what we have done…” What will we be remembered for, what have we done? The stupidity of war continues, with ever-increasing destruction of innocent lives, while those who direct the wars are ever-further removed from the sight of that destruction.
To me, War Horse ranks alongside Journey’s End as an outstanding anti-war protest: maybe more accessible to younger generations who only know war from what they see in the media. My hope is that it will move them to do all they can to put an end to it before the world in which we live is reduced to lifeless rubble.
The National Theatre Presents: War Horse Festival Theatre, Edinburgh runs continues until 12 May. For tickets go to https://www.capitaltheatres.com/warhorse
Review by Mary Woodward.