Monday just past, I was lucky enough to go to the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh to see the National Theatre’s production of War Horse. I bought the tickets as a Christmas present for my mum. Ever since we both read the book we have wanted to catch the stage version, and to my relief there were still seats available back in early December. At the time I didn’t realise just how close to the stage we would be. We were in the second row and our view was amazing. Our seats were also close to the ramp that Joey trotted down, so we had a brilliant close-up of him.
I’ve heard several people say that the show is stunning and the horses realistic, but I don’t think I was prepared for just how spectacular the whole production would be. The stage was very simply set up, with a canvas-cum-screen that acted both as a sketchbook and map at different points throughout the show. I was fascinated watching the moving sketch of Albert and Joey out riding while Lieutenant Nicholls drew them. There were several haunting songs that struck the right balance of emotion and story-telling. When the whole cast sung at the end I got a lump in my throat.
The horses, of course, are the heart of the production. I was very interested to see for myself how they were represented on stage. I’d seen news clips of how the actors worked together to make the horses seem as real as possible, but seeing it for myself was something else. Your brain tells you that it is not an actual horse, that there are actors inside the frame, but somehow you don’t notice any of that. Due to some very talented actors you feel as if you are looking at an actual horse. The movements and sounds are all so real, and the eyes of both Joey and Topthorn appear to glisten, so that when they look at you, you feel as if you are looking into a living horse’s eyes. There were many occasions when I felt that Joey had expressions on his face – sadness, weariness, contentment – and that for me made the whole experience fascinating.
High praise must be extended to everyone involved in War Horse. Every actor was beyond brilliant. They lived and breathed their parts, from the puppeters portraying the horses, to the Narracott family and the soldiers on the front line. Lee Armstrong was tremendous as Albert Narracott. You truly believed in the affection between Albert and Joey, and you shared in his growing despair and trauma as the war wore on. Martin Wenner was superb as Friedrich Muller, showing us a man disenchanted and sickened by a war that had torn him from his family. One of the best things about War Horse, both the book and the stage show, is the lack of bias. It could have been all too easy to paint the German soldiers in a negative light, but War Horse presents us with a generation of men, of all nationalities, forced to fight in hellish conditions, surrounded by horrors we cannot even imagine. We don’t see them as German or British soldiers, but as men trapped in a nightmare from which they cannot escape.
War Horse is harrowing. I remember how emotional I was while reading the book. This production has captured the emotional heart of the book perfectly. There were several occasions where I had a lump in my throat, and by the end the tears were streaming down my face. The man sitting next to me, who was in his twenties, was even sniffling. You know a show is powerful when it reduces grown men to tears!
I enjoyed every minute of War Horse, and I cannot recommend it enough. If you have a chance to go and see it, please do. You will be left stunned at the special effects, and moved by a story about love and friendship and the senseless suffering of war. It is a timely production, considering that this year is the centenary of the First World War. I certainly came away with a new perspective on what those men must have faced, and a stronger respect for them for sacrificing and suffering so much so that we could be here today.