My friends always make fun of me for seeing certain plays multiple times. There are some shows, like Hamilton or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (I know, controversial), that as I leave the theatre, I know that I need to witness again to truly appreciate. Well, let me just say that, not only did I see War Horse twice, I saw it twice in a single week.
Returning to National Theatre eleven years after its initial debut, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, War Horse explores the bond between young Albert and his beloved horse Joey.
Adapted to stage from Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the same name by Nick Stafford, and directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, the play is unlike anything I have seen on stage before. The biggest props, perhaps, goes out to the Handspring Puppet Company, though. From the first moment Joey appears on stage as a foal, I had chills. Imagine my disbelief the moment he appears as a full-grown horse moments later, moving so realistically, with so much personality, that I immediately started crying. I cried at how realistic a horse puppet was. It was that realistic. Throughout the play, there’s this weird awareness of the fact that these ‘horses’ (yes, there are multiple, and they are all amazing, with individual personalities) are fake, although within moments you learn to suspend these thoughts, convincing yourself that these are real, living animals on stage. And with the intricacy shown by the incredible puppeteering company, it really isn’t that hard to do so.
Horses are not the only animal puppets in the play. The decision to include birds here and there add a wonderful touch of nature, and the goose acts as a much-needed comic relief, that never takes away from the serious tone of the play.
The play is magnificently paced; there’s never really a dull moment as the characters (human and puppet) are continuously thrown new obstacles to overcome. Not only do these build up in terms of intensity throughout the play, putting more at stakes for the characters, they also allow for a hefty amount of foreshadowing, and subtle call-backs to previous events.
The war scenes are perfectly executed, with just the right amount of gruesome, holding a mirror to the ugly realities of warfare. These scenes are loud and intense and had me at the edge of my seat.
The acting is also great, with a special shout-out to Thomas Dennis, who really manages to portray Albert’s youth and innocence beautifully, and Jo Castleton, who delivers an emotionally packed performance as Albert’s mother, Rose Naracott. Without giving too much away, Rose’s reactions and feelings towards certain events in the play are perhaps the most gut-wrenching of all.
Although not a musical, there is bits of singing dispersed through the show. At first, I wasn’t fully sold on these, as I wasn’t sure what they really added, but by the interval, I was on board. They still don’t feel like an integral part of the play, but I did enjoy the commentary they provided. Additionally, I think they also helped pace the play, dispersing and adding tension as needed.
Overall, if I was to sum up the play with a single word, it would be magnetising. The play moved me deeply from the first moment until its last, and I wept like a baby. War Horse is a combination of everything I love about theatre, and each aspect is expertly curated to work like magic. Morpurgo’s novel might be widely classified as a children’s novel, although on stage, War Horse is not only a play suitable for everyone, tt is a play that should be seen by everyone (above the age of 10, according to National Theatre). So deeply moving and effective, the play stays with the viewer long after leaving the theatre. If there is a single play I would recommend anyone to see this year in London, it would undoubtedly be War Horse. Playing at National Theatre until January 2019, War Horse is a not-to-be-missed visual and emotional spectacle that any theatre enthusiast should get to witness.