A thin strip of paper, as if torn from the pages of a book, hangs suspended above the empty stage like a giant rip in a forbidding sky. Orchestral chords shimmer in darkness beneath a high violin note ringing with expectation. A hopeful solo trumpet calls out as birdsong fills the air and a young foal appears at the back of the empty stage. This exquisite but vividly spare opening sequence sets the tone for “War Horse,” immediately electrifying audiences’ imaginations.
Like “Black Beauty,” Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel is told by the central character of a horse, Joey, a foal bought at auction in rural England in the years running up to WWI. Joey and 14-year-old farmer’s son Albert (Luke Treadaway) become inseparable until the outbreak of war, when the horse is requisitioned and sent to the front.
The animal’s-eye view packs otherwise familiar territory with serious punch. The horrors of fighting on both the British and German fronts are given fresh impact, and Morpurgo’s prose makes the climactic reunion between the horse and his boy highly emotional.
The production’s major departure is to jettison Morpurgo’s anthropomorphic approach — on the page, Joey shared his thoughts and feelings with the reader. In Nick Stafford’s adaptation, workshopped by the National over three years, the horse remains central throughout but never speaks. Yet auds remain captivated by Joey’s experiences and feelings thanks to the production’s magnificent use of life-sized puppets.
Eat your heart out, “Equus”: Puppet company Handspring’s horses have an almost inexplicable onstage life.
For each horse, three manipulators — controlling head, front legs and hind quarters — are visible beneath a simple, perfectly hinged body of colored gauze and bamboo. No attempt is made to disguise their presence. Toby Sedgwick’s movement work allows them to use the animal frame to simulate equine breathing and movement with uncanny sensitivity.
The secret here and throughout Rae Smith’s evocative production design is that all the representation is nonliteral. The puppets don’t look exactly like horses in any photographic way. Instead they represent and embody them. Even the manipulator’s audible shudders, cries and screams suggest rather than accurately copy horse sounds.
Equally, having members of the ensemble stand at the sides of the stage in battle sequences making shadow-play against the paper strip is far more theatrically eloquent than showing actual film footage.
Heightening the complexity of the elemental emotions and experiences is the marriage of all the production elements commanded by helmers Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. While the latter initiated the project, Elliott’s fingerprints — and those of her “Saint Joan” design team, Smith and Paule Constable — are all over it.
Adrian Sutton’s powerful, filmic score, ranging from Vaughan Williams-esque English pastoral pastiche to Tippett-like discordant brass bravado, helps unify the production’s vision.
The dramatic weight of watching Treadaway savagely but tenderly putting a horse out of its misery, when auds know full well it’s a puppet, is extraordinary. Even the uplifting climax strengthens the expected joy of reunion with the ache of what the characters have been through.
It’s typical of the production’s audacity that the most painful moment — Joey caught in barbed wire during his headlong escape into no man’s land — is the most majestic. Backlit in terrifying brightness, the manipulators scream and Joey rears up in pain, lifted aloft on the spiraling drum revolve which rises to reveal the wounded and dying soldiers left in the wake of war.
Not everything is on so epic a scale. Angus Wright is affectingly diffident and calm as the kind German officer who throws aside his allegiance to tend to the horses. The production leavens its tone with period songs, and there’s also much welcome comedy, not least with a hilariously inquisitive goose puppet whipping round the stage.
Mirroring Morpurgo’s story, riven with the faith of its central characters, Elliott and Morris and their multitasking company exhibit a similar degree of faith. Their almost unique piece of storytelling depends absolutely on auds using their imaginations to complete its satisfyingly complex images. The tear-stained faces at curtain call are testimony to the production’s success.