As I’m incredibly interested in the use of puppetry in theatrical productions it has always been a dream of mine to see War Horse in person. So, last May I booked tickets for the current UK Tour of War Horse during its stop in Cardiff. After opening at the National Theatre in 2007, War Horse, unfortunately, concluded its West End run nearly 10 years later in 2016. It will tour the UK until March 2019.
Based on the children’s book of the same name by Michael Morpurgo and adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, for which he gained an Olivier Award nomination for Best New Play in 2008 and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2011, War Horse is now famous for its emotional WW1 setting and introduction of life-sized horse puppets.
War Horse depicts the journey of Joey, a hunting horse, who is transported from the safe but unpredictable world of the farming community in Devon to the dangers of the front line of the First World War. Simultaneously, Albert Narracott (the role originated by Game of Thrones star Kit Harrington), the boy who befriends Joey throughout both of their early lives, willingly places himself in the heart of the war in an attempt to reunite with Joey after the two are separated by Ted, Albert’s father.
War Horse is quite unique in how it treats the cast and how this alters the viewing experience. Due to its emotional, wide-reaching narrative and unique storytelling methods, the cast actually transcends the audience’s need to name every member of the case and even the levels of principle and ensemble in some cases. This is particularly true in the interactions between the cast as while Jo Castleton and Thomas Dennis stand out as Rose and Albert Narracott respectively they bring each character they interact with to the forefront with them simply through their conversations, even if that character has a very small part in the wider play. The whole cast came together more as a unit, similarly to the cast members puppeteering, to create a very cohesive production. However, I feel that a special mention has to go to Bob Fox as the Songman, a narrator verging on mysterious who brings elements from civilian and war life together in a way that is heart wrenching and intriguing as I actually wanted to know more.
Following this, it is clear that this show is built on and completely embodying respect. While the actors never compromise the feeling that they are partaking in the current moment of the First World War they also include vital moments of respect towards those taking part, whether they are animal or human. It is this balance which really stood out to me as a very delicate one which takes a lot to maintain. The show is increasingly moving as it goes on and the vignetted narrative really plays into this.
Obviously, the most awe-inspiring aspect of this play was seeing the puppetry. Joey’s entrance showed that the narrative knows this and it is very clear that he is the principal member of this cast. However, I have always leaned more towards Topthorn and I was stunned to see the detail that has gone into the puppets to show the differences in Topthorn and Joey’s body types. They have now become icons in their own right and from finally seeing them in action it is very clear to see why.
On the note of the Topthorn and Joey teams of puppeteers, while you do forget that they are puppets, you simultaneously see the amount of work that goes into simply moving them let alone expressing the emotion needed for this show. There are moments weaved into the narrative where the puppeteers clearly respect the puppets as what they represent which is a horse actively taking part in the war. To mention a specific part of the show the moment in which Topthorn and Joey decide who is in charge is one of the most important and eye-opening moments in the character construction of a puppet. Personally, I love Topthorn as his role makes both himself and Joey unique in that while Joey does have what could be called amazing luck, Topthorn is the one in charge and it’s a beautiful moment which ripples throughout the show.
However, there is more puppetry in this show than you may initially expect. I found it very intriguing how puppetry was consistently used at the forefront of the most emotional, stunning moments of the show. Even 10 years on, this show remains one of the best examples of the role of puppetry within theatre and how it must be used as an integral part of the exploration of emotion within the narrative rather than purely an aesthetic piece.
Many shows are held up as inspirations to actors, as they rightly should be, but War Horse is one that could easily be held up as highly inspiring to those who undertaking careers in the more technical elements of theatre performance. The lighting, designed by Paule Constable, is amazing and I cannot overstate that enough. The ending of act one can be difficult in a play which cannot rely on a memorable musical number but the lighting in this show ensures that the end of act one is a beautiful scene not only to look at but to experience. This experience is moulded by the introduction of Christopher Shutt’s sound design which really surprised me but it heightens everything. I will say that this show is very loud but considering the heightened emotions it is entirely appropriate and, in my option, ensures that the audience is totally immersed.
Overall, this show is a rarity which completely deserves a five-star rating as it brings several elements of theatrical practice to the forefront in the spectacular way that they deserve to be highlighted. It also achieves this while never compromising the respect that is due to the subject matter it attempts to bring to a 21st-century audience who are increasingly separated from this particular history. I was in awe of their ability to interweave the respect due to the subject matter with a narrative that brings the audience into the heart of the contemporary experiences of those partaking in the dangers of the First World War.
War Horse is running at the Wales Millennium Centre until the 28th of July 2018 before continuing to the Woking New Victoria Theatre from August 1st to August 18th. You can purchase your tickets from the Wales Millenium Centre here or from the official War Horse website here.
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