Review: War Horse comes to the Marlowe

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The National Theatre production of Michael Morpurgo’s Warhorse arrived in Canterbury this Wednesday. Since its world premiere more than twelve years ago, the production has garnered critical acclaim and a seven-year run in the West-End.

The success of the play attracted the attention of Hollywood titan, Stephen Spielberg, who adapted the story into a similarly captivating blockbuster in 2011. But as Michael Morpurgo remarks in the programme notes, “the play’s the thing”.

In some ways the theatre seems particularly ill-suited to the demands of Morpurgo’s narrative. The main protagonist is, after all, a horse! And much of the story unfolds in the vast desolation of Northern France during World War One. In rising to these twin challenges the National Theatre has created a unique a beautiful vision of love in wartime.

It is rare in theatre that the star of the show has no lines at all, but that is certainly true here. Joey is a “hunter”, half-thoroughbred, half-farm-horse who arrives on stage first as a fearful and somewhat awkward foal at auction and later, quite breathtakingly, fully grown.

The Handspring Puppet Company who are responsible for Joey have truly created a marvel of modern theatre. For although one can see in plain sight the human puppeteers, one can’t help but feel the presence of a living, breathing horse.

At the heart of the story is the profound and enduring love that develops between Joey and the young farmer’s son, Albert Narricott, played here with great sensitivity by Scott Miller. When Narricott’s father spends the family savings on Joey, it is Albert who is charged with training the young foal.

However, unlike his father, Albert is inclined to see Joey not just as a tool but as a scared and fearful animal whose trust must be earnt not by the whip but through love and care. Through a grunt or a flick of the head, or a guarded approach, the puppeteers were able to convey the profound bond that develops between Joey and Albert.

When war is declared on Germany, Joey is sold to the British Army and shipped to France. The genius of Morpurgo’s story is that by following Joey, we are given a new view on a conflict whose story has been told so many times.

Joey’s mute acceptance of his new role as cavalry and his willing charge on machine gun batteries makes all the more stark the absurdity of the conflict. I was reminded of Picasso’s great anti-war painting Guernica – a painting in which the plight of animals is prominently woven into the terrible scene of human conflict.

There are also echoes of Guernica in Rae Smith’s excellent set design which incorporates projected images and dramatic lighting effects to bring the chaos of the battlefield vividly to life.

Special mention must also go to Ben Murray. Throughout the play, Murray provides context and depth to the story through beautifully sung melancholic folk songs. The songs bring out the poignant contrast between the idyllic world of pre-war England where Joey’s story begins and the desolate battlefields where his human masters take him.

We are truly fortunate to have such an extraordinary production come to Canterbury. Take this opportunity to see it and you will not be disappointed.

***** A profoundly moving production

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