Despite the huge buzz that has now held out for over six years and multiple awards, I’ll admit that before I had seen The National Theatre’s War Horse with my own eyes, I still had my reservations. For starters, I shared misgivings with the story’s original writer, Michael Morpurgo, about the puppetry: could it be possible to use life-size puppets and still avoid the spectacle taking over from the story? Secondly, I’d seen the film – which was fine, but didn’t quite live up to expectations: hardly surprising, I suppose, with a hype as resilient and indefatigable as the story’s equine protagonist.
What was most striking and most surprising about the play, however, is that its puppet horses actually felt more real to me than did the real live horses in the film. As Morpurgo explained in an interview a fellow first night blogger and I conducted prior to the performance:
‘I didn’t really believe a show could be made of this story about the First World War with puppets at the heart; I couldn’t quite see how anyone could take that seriously. I was imagining a pantomime horse, which I know is silly, but that’s what I was thinking. So they said, “No, you must come and meet these guys – Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa – and see their work.“ So I went and I saw this life–size giraffe walking across the studio floor with three puppeteers and I simply couldn’t believe it!…You believed totally that there was life in this creature. It was unbelievably moving, I felt tears coming to my eyes. I don’t actually feel tears coming to my eyes when I see a real giraffe and yet this manifestation of a giraffe, this giraffe spirit, was so touching that I thought that maybe if they could do it with a giraffe, they could do it with a horse.’
The puppets are honestly every bit as magnificent as that makes them sound. The attention to detail is breathtaking: it’s the little flicks of the ears and tails, the variety of their noises, their breathing and the way the heads move as the eat and drink that are most impressive. I’m told that at times on their many travels (to Canada, America, Australia, Ireland and soon Berlin, as well as the UK) they have even been mistaken for real horses!
And yet it wasn’t just the raved-about, life-like magic of the puppetry that made this show. One of my main problems when watching the War Horse film was that I struggled with the concept of the horse as an identification figure in the midst of so much human suffering. Many Brits, with their peculiar sentimentality about animals, would probably call me callous, but the fact remains that I’m not really an “animal person” in that way, and my reaction to the whole thing was rather similar to Rose Narracott’s amazement at her son’s obsession with his horse in the play: “Half the men in the village are dead!” she exclaims. Of course, the very fact that the play (and not the film) included such a line as this tells you something – I think – about their relative priorities. In a way that I hadn’t before, I really understood Joey’s purpose as being to give a balanced, honest perspective on the war and its futility. Max Hastings writes pityingly in the programme of the “plight of the horses conscripted to suffer in conflicts which they, unlike their riders, lack any means of understanding”, but I feel that here he’s missed something crucial. The sad truth is that the many of the soldiers who fought in World War I probably had little more comprehension of what was really happening and why than did their dumb mounts. There were, after all, horrifying numbers of teenagers fighting in both world wars who, much like Albert Narracott searching desperately for his lost pet, were barely more than children themselves. Michael Morpurgo has (quite rightly) sugared the pill with an extremely unlikely happy ending for Albert and Joey: the terrible reality faced by real young soldiers was perhaps a rather less suitable subject for a children’s book.
Albert’s innocence and naivety in this play is almost agonising. Lee Armstrong may well be older than Jeremy Irvine was in the film, but on stage, one always readily accepts a lot more. On screen, Irvine cuts an imposing figure: he simply looks and carries himself too much like a man – a healthy, chiseled, Hollywood-style man at that. Meanwhile Armstrong perfectly captures Albert’s tragic, youthful innocence and fear. Where in the film, Albert seems simply to have joined up as a matter of course, when the time was right, along with other young men in his village, in the play, he childishly, stupidly runs away from home, with no clear idea of what he is letting himself in for. Despite his mother’s dwelling on the seemingly disproportionate number of reported deaths of men from their village, the danger never really registers with Albert, because he isn’t listening, because he is a silly teenage boy, a lot sulkier and a lot more fragile than Spielberg’s glossier version.
Albert’s is just one small part of the overwhelming tragedy of the play which stands out despite its superficially cheery ending. The story of the deserting German Hauptmann who loses his chance at happiness touches us more nearly than that of Emilie and her kindly, old grandfather in the film: the drawn-out uncertainty about their fate is something worse than any definite death, which might permit us to grieve and move on – we have only to look at the national preoccupation with the story of Madeleine McCann for corroboration of this. Through Friedrich and his fellow soldiers, the German “side” is made infinitely more complex and interesting, and this political complexity is borne out throughout the film. The play opens with an argument between two brothers – two heads of households – which escalates into something serious and dangerous for their whole families: in their ongoing fraternal feud, it’s not too hard to see a reflection of the never-ending disputes between proud governments and their impact upon the nations and peoples in their charge. Much as we care about Albert and Joey, they do not own this realisation of the tale in the same way as they do in the film. The snapshots and multiple perspectives we are given leave us with a distinct impression of something much bigger than they are, something so huge and terrible that it cannot really be squashed into a single two-and-three-quarter-hour play (though somehow, miraculously, it is).
The music and set design do much to pick up on this idea. The play is set against a soaring, filmic score, with panoramic vistas appearing on the white screen hanging up at the back of the stage. Yet the disjunction between this and the necessary minimalism on the stage itself is always apparent: thus conscious of its limitations, it is more able than a film to suggest a wider world outside of itself, to hint at something greater than it is. As Michael Morpurgo said,
“A film tells you just about everything, it leaves you no room for manoeuvring….I think with the puppets it is so much up to the audience to invest in those puppets….It’s the same thing when it’s on the page, it is left to the reader. It is why the thing works so wonderfully well. A book is useless without a reader – that’s where the magic happens. It’s when the story meets the reader, the author meets the reader. In the play again it needs the meeting of imagination to work….With the film it’s on a plate: here is what Devon looked like in 1914, here is what the war was like, here is what the horse looked like. Parts of it were wonderful, the war scenes were extraordinary. It was less successful where the director understood the story less well.”
Choral interludes remind us repeatedly of all the other people in the background, the people whose stories we are not, directly at least, being told. The sketchy design of the moving images, too, seems almost incomplete – what they create is less a film than a storyboard. Like the semi-transparent, almost skeletal puppet horses, they give us half the picture, at once seeming real and not real. Even the white strip across which the images race is styled to look like a part of something else, a strip torn from a sketchbook that could perhaps tell us many more stories, should we care to read or hear them.
There are even more layers in this play that I failed to notice as I watched and learned afterwards from the programme, like the mini-art history lesson that Robert Butler notes is offered by Rae Smith’s drawings, gradually morphing as they do from idyllic, rural, realist landscapes into more abstract and troubling cubist and vorticist designs, the war seeming to shatter everything normal, rational and known into dark, obscure and often frightening fragments.
Despite its relative simplicity in terms of set, cost and design, War Horse the play is easily as beautiful, if not more so, than it’s movie counterpart, yet its beauty is of a bleaker, more sombre kind, that seems to encapsulate and prefigure tragedy right from the start. The horses’ skeleton-frames suggest their fragility and inevitable demise. There’s an underlying sadness to the music even at its most rousing and triumphant, because we hear it with hindsight. Even the love and empathy between characters can be terrible in the pain it causes: the guilt and shame of Friedrich and Ted Narracott, the loneliness and anxiety of Rose Narracott, the fear and anger of little Emilie, all wonderfully portrayed by the show’s excellent cast. War Horse is magnificent, and I’m just sad I haven’t read the book yet.
War Horse is showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 9th November. All shows are now fully booked, but you can call 0844 338 5000 for returns, or visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website for more information. Watch this space for full interviews with Michael Morpurgo and puppeteer John Leader, and check out First Night Blogger Tal Fox’s thoughts on the show here.