War Horse is one of National Theatre Live’s most successful broadcast productions. It is not surprising at all as this show is truly a theatrical feast. War Horse is based on the novel of the same title by the acclaimed English author Michael Morpurgo. Initially he was sceptical that the novel could be successfully adapted for stage, but he was proved wrong. Since 2007 War Horse has been mesmerising audiences around the world with its touching story and a powerful longing for peace.
One of the things that make this production stand out is that the horrors of World War I are seen through the eyes of an unusual character—a beautiful horse, Joey. In the original novel the story is actually narrated by him, but as a talking horse might have seemed a little bit odd on stage, Joey was stripped of his potential lines. However, it did not make the character devoid of distinct personality. War Horse begins in a peaceful village in rural Devon, England, where little Joey is won in an auction by a drunken farmer Ted Narracott in his attempt to outdo his brother who wanted a horse for his son. After the initial triumph, Ted realises that the unnecessary purchase left him without a penny for his mortgage. Ted’s son, Albert, decides to take care of Joey until he can be sold. That is how a friendship between a man and a horse begins. When the war breaks out, despite his son’s protests, Ted sells Joey to the cavalry. He is shipped to France where he takes part in battles and soon, alongside another beautiful horse, Topthorn, gets captured by German soldiers. After some time of torturous uncertainty about Joey’s fate and tragic news about the officer who rode the horse to battle, Albert enlists in the army and goes to France where he, too, has to face the brutal reality of war.
What makes War Horse stand out from other war stories is its treatment of both sides of conflict. In many films and novels on this topic the opposing side is often demonised and devoid of any positive human qualities. However, War Horse does not follow this convention. Throughout Joey’s journey, the war is not depicted from the British army’s point of view only. The audience also get to have a glimpse of German troops’ and French civilians’ experience of the tragic events. This approach reveals the universal longing for peace and disdain for war and death among humans, whatever their cultural background. Also, the presence of majestic horses in the play serves as a reminder for people of the nobility and strengths they possess deep down in their hearts. It is simply amazing to see how both people and animals develop a strong will to live and find things that allow them to endure the hardships of their circumstances.
Even though the War Horse cast’s performances are impeccable, the real stars of the show are the life sized horse puppets created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. Through skilful performance of the puppeteers, inanimate puppets come to live. They breath, gallop, and have unique personalities. The audience quickly forget that the puppets are operated by several people and deeply sympathise with the tribulations that the horses have to go through during war. The staging is minimalistic yet extremely effective in showing different locations including peaceful English country side and trenches in France. The lighting and sound effects also help to set the mood and, in some scenes, create the scarily realistic effects of machine guns and explosions. The production also features a number of soulful English folk songs performed live on stage. Certainly, recorded score might not be as powerful as live music, but a clever choice of songs about land, spring, and love nevertheless creates a strong emotional impact. The music reveals that unstoppable yearning for peace and love for life that so many of the War Horse characters embody.
War Horse is a powerful reminder of not only the grim past, but also of the events that have been unfolding across the world over the last couple of decades. It seems strange that after a century of brutal confrontations some people still feel the need to wage war and shed innocent blood. Maybe, productions like War Horse can be a warning call that can make us review our actions and change our direction before it is too late. The universal hope for peace is undoubtedly one of the reasons why War Horse has been successful with audiences around the world. And with the National Theatre Live initiative this outstanding production, it is now more accessible than ever.