Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
I’ll admit I am prone to falling madly in love with this book, that song, or the other play. I have a tendency to thrust slender novels at my friends and declare them the latest Mrs Dalloway to cry Woolf, if you will.
But it is entirely without exaggeration I tell you that War Horse, the National Theatre’s new production of Michael Morpurgo’s much-loved novel, is simply the most beautiful, compelling, absorbing and heart-breaking piece of theatre I have ever seen. If we can judge a play by its effect on the audience and I don’t see why we shouldn’t War Horse must be garlanded with praise. At its conclusion the audience, which had done a pretty poor job of restraining itself throughout the final half-hour, erupted into tearful applause, and stumbled into the lobby with bruised palms and promises to return the following night.
The play opens in Devon in 1913, where young Albert’s feckless father has bought a foal at auction. Begging to be allowed to keep the horse, Albert develops a bond with the animal, spending long summer days as its companion, and naming him Joey. At the outbreak of war Albert’s father sells Joey into the cavalry, and breaks his son’s heart; unable to bear the thought of his friend facing the battlefields alone, he lies about his age, and enlists.
The tale is as much a sad stern caution on war as it is the story of a horse and his boy. Albert is first a frightened youth, then a cocky lance-corporal with a defiant cigarette, and finally a wounded and wretched child again. As with all great and terrible things, the terror of war is incomprehensible unless we can come down to some small detail, and it is the smallest things young boys told to left their buttons unpolished so they don’t draw fire, a trembling horse caught on barbed wire that are most piteous.
There is much to admire in the play’s staging the use of poignant folk songs ringing over the battle-fields, the utter shock of a tank rearing up against the frightened horses but the puppetry makes the production. The horses are life-sized models of cloth and paper laid over wooden frames, articulated by three actors always visible and never intrusive. The range and subtlety of the movements they draw from them is astonishing: Joey as a foal is leggy, capricious, and a little afraid; as a hunter he’s broad-flanked and dignified, which makes his terror in battle all the more distressing to see. At one point a horse doomed to pull cannon dies of exhaustion; its body is ghostly pale and made of tattered fragments, and when it dies the actors roll out from its belly like a departing spirit. A puppet of a small girl is less successful, and indeed has an eerie sort of face more appropriate to a horror film than a play, but it is a small complaint.
I have never known an audience be so affected. When a reluctant army surgeon raises his pistol to the trembling forehead of a wounded horse, and the grim soldiers nearby give a final salute, I heard all around me people begging aloud for its life. The conclusion probably comes perilously close to sentimentality, but who cares: if there cannot be unashamed sentiment where there is a tale of loyalty and broken youth, then where can there be?
Luke Treadaway as Albert is a revelation; he is so measured and natural a presence throughout that his distress in the final scene is almost impossible to watch. The adult cast members are at times a little too declamatory in their approach, as if to make the plot inescapably easy to grasp, but then one remembers it’s a play for children, and they are forgiven. Angus Wright is particularly good as a tormented German officer who finds Joey: his appearance at the beginning of the second half propels the action to its conclusion.
Other reviewers have carped about the improbabilities of the play’s plot, but good heavens: presumably they have several times accepted that a court-full of learned men truly believed Portia to be a young man of unusually high voice and acute legal understanding, or that Lucy pushed her way through a cluster of fur coats and came across that lamp-post glowing in that snowy wood. It will take you no more than five minutes to suspend your disbelief, and see not a wooden cloth-covered frame but a bay hunter with a shy boy riding on its back.
Go, and take your children, if you have them (youngsters of much less than twelve were there, shocked but enraptured): there can be no better lesson on the value of loyalty, and the infuriating, shameful, pointless pity of war.