Culture editor Natalie Welch reviews the ‘heart-wrenching and brilliantly directed’ touring production of War Horse
War Horse has been galloping onto stages since it first premiered in 2007 at the National Theatre in London. This Autumn, War Horse returns to Birmingham Hippodrome for a limited time, finishing its run there on the 3rd of November.
The play is based upon a novel by Michael Morpurgo, and quite notably known for a film adaption by renowned director, Steven Spielberg. This was my first time seeing the play, so it had quite a legacy to live up to.
War Horse begins in the Devonshire countryside in 1911. We see the development of a relationship between man (Albert) and horse (Joey). All is turned upside down when war breaks out in 1914, with Joey sold to the army and subsequently sent to France. Not long after, Albert lies about his age to join the army and find his beloved horse. The rest of the play takes place on the battlefields of France.
The play is very inventive with its narrative devices. Firstly, there is Bob Fox, a folk singer who ventures on stage throughout the play to sing a song that narrates the experience from Joey’s perspective. It breaks up the action, but also ensures that the audience are always properly immersed in the moving narrative.
Also striking is the back drop of the stage, taking the form of a massive torn shred of paper. With a projector, this background creatively sets the scene, and helps the audience follow and feel what is happening in the play. One of the many poignant uses of this backdrop is when Albert’s best friend, David Taylor, is shot down, and the tear of paper fills with red, like flowing blood, then the blood turns to poppies. We are reminded of what people gave their lives for. Needless to say, this was one of many tear jerking moments.
One of my favourite aspects of the play was the character of David Taylor being a strident and proud Brummie. As well as giving a connection to the city that it was performing in, the use of this strong accent was impactful. The First World War was a time so very different to ours that it can sometimes be hard to properly understand and empathise with just how difficult it must have been to wave goodbye to so many people that you had grown up with. Giving the character that accent gave him some relatability to the Birmingham audience; it reminds us that it was people like those we interact with every day that were sent and gave their lives.
On a similar note, the play does a good job of unifying the opposing soldiers. When it comes to remembrance of the wars, I think that many can be very quick to only think of our own fallen – and not that there were countless soldiers from other countries, just as innocent as our own, that fell too. There is a particular point in the play, where Joey the horse is caught in barbed wire in the No Man’s Land. A Geordie soldier and a German soldier, both stricken by the inhumanity of leaving the horse to die, rise from their trenches to go help to free him. After working together, they quickly and fairly decide (by a game of heads and tails) who keeps Joey. In that moment, apart from accents, you can barely tell the difference between the English soldier and the German soldier. In this moment, it is not about England v. Germany, or right v. wrong; this is two men, both stuck in an incredibly tragic situation. They are unified by their horrific experiences.
The use of mechanical puppets is astounding. Each horse is made up of three men; a head, a heart and a hind. These three puppeteers manage to move so fluidly you forget that you’re watching a puppet, and not an actual horse. Something that adds to this illusion is how the actors mimic the sounds of horses. A horses’ lungs are three times the size of human lungs, and so to enable the puppet horses to have the depth and longevity of an actual horse noise, the three puppeteers would either neigh in synchronisation – so one would start, then the other, then the other – or they would all neigh at once for a deeper, louder neigh. The dynamic thinking that goes into every aspect of this production will truly leave you awe-struck.
War Horse undoubtedly fulfilled every expectation that I had for it. It was heart-wrenching and brilliantly directed. With the centenary of the Armistice approaching and ticket prices start from just £29.50, I would strongly urge anyone and everyone to go see War Horse before it leaves Birmingham.