Review of War Horse

16th November 2007


The National’s sell-out production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is discussed by David Benedict (Variety) and Jane Edwardes (Time Out). Dominic Cavendish (Daily Telegraph) hosts. Recorded at Dewynters, London.

This feels like a breakthrough moment for the National – there is no flaw in the artifice of the puppetry.

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The National’s sell-out production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is discussed by David Benedict (Variety) and Jane Edwardes (Time Out). Dominic Cavendish (Daily Telegraph) hosts. Recorded at Dewynters, London.

Recorded: 16 November 2007

Transcribed by the V&A © This transcript is copyright of the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you wish to refer to this publication its reference is WEST END REVIEW 16 NOVEMBER 2007 and you must quote the URL in your address bar.

Dominic Cavendish: Hello, this is Dominic Cavendish welcoming you back to the TheatreVOICE West End Review. We’ve had to have a short break this year prompted by the Theatre Museum’s closure in Covent Garden and relocation to the V&A in South Kensington. In the meantime, top theatrical, marketing and creative consultancy Dewynters has kindly allowed the monthly critics roundup to resume at their premises in Leicester Square, which means we couldn’t be recording in a more central, pulsating part of London’s Theatreland. Joining me today are David Benedict, London theatre critic for Variety, Jane Edwardes, theatre editor of Time Out and Aleks Sierz, critic for Tribune. All three will be mulling over Thea Sharrock’s revival of Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill at the Almeida, but first David and Jane are going to share their thoughts about War Horse, the National Theatre’s big family show this Christmas, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, together with directors Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott.

In very simple terms, War Horse tells the story of a Devonshire lad called Albert Narracott (played by Luke Treadaway), who is so devoted to his horse Joey that when the beast is commandeered to join the cavalry at the outset of World War I, he enlists too, and his quest to track down the animal across the ravages of the Western Front provides the principle source of suspense. Will they or won’t they be reunited before one of them, or both of them, get blasted to smithereens? Just to couch the tale in those terms however is to suggest that the boy is the central character of the piece, whereas in fact the focus of theatrical attention is Joey. Morpurgo wrote his novel as though through equine eyes, and the challenge in this production was to find an appropriate correlative. Into the front line stepped Handspring Puppet Company, affirmed by Morris to be the finest puppeteers in the world, and after two years of development the result of their handiwork can be seen nightly, and on many afternoons too, on the Olivier stage, stomping, cantering, grazing and wordlessly emoting with a panache that has left even the most hardened anti-puppetryist quite speechless. Jane and David, the programme comes armed with all manner of relatively unknown statistics about how many horses and mules died during the course of World War I. I suppose one statistic that most theatregoers will be most horrified by is that the show is already completely sold out, barring a few day seats, and it has done that on the back of a cavalry charge of rave reviews. Is something exceptional going on with this show do you think, Jane?

Jane Edwardes: Yes, I think there is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen puppets used to quite such emotional effect, or maybe the only time I have was the arrival of the Sultan’s Elephant in the centre of London, where it too seemed to have the kind of – that had the spirit of elephant, and these have the spirit of horse, and you can feel them quivering and you can feel the emotional life of the horse going on. So I think there is something very special, and something very special too in the use of the Olivier Stage. I think there’s a new generation of directors who don’t seem to be defeated by the Olivier Stage in the way that people were in the past. So for those reasons, (although I have slight reservations about the show elsewhere), for those reasons I think it’s extraordinarily strong, and full of incredible visual imagery, sort of drawing on the Vorticists, which is very, very powerful.

DC: So David, not quite your standard theatre showing from the National? Or maybe it is now, maybe we’re expecting something of very high quality and this is what we’re getting this year?

David Benedict: Well actually, in a way to be perverse I suppose I think it is quite similar to a lot of National work, principally because of its galvanising force in director Marianne Elliott, and Rae Smith and Paule Constable, the design team who did such an extraordinary job on Saint Joan. This is the polar opposite; Saint Joan is a text that’s absolutely crammed with words, this has startlingly few. I mean actually, if you sat down and read the text it would probably all be over in about half an hour, but what happens here is a piece of total theatre. I mean, I do genuinely think this is remarkable. This is one of those productions that people will talk about for years to come. It does an extraordinary thing by taking, as you said in your introduction, that the central character is in fact Joey the horse, who doesn’t speak. In the book it’s anthropomorphic. In the book we get Joey’s thoughts, we get the tale told by a horse. Here, we watch the tale of a horse but we don’t hear from him at all, and to actually drive an entire two-and-a-half-hour narrative with a character that is not speaking, that is being played by at least three people in an extraordinary piece of puppetry is an extraordinary achievement.

DC: I mean, I suppose it does feel, like, for me, it felt like a breakthrough moment for the National, because for the last few years one has seen various attempts at puppetry, His Dark Materials being the most obvious, where you felt that they were experimenting with a form, slightly rushing things to the stage, although obviously these projects all take a huge amount of development time, but here somehow there was no kind of flaw, no crack in the artifice as it were. You saw exactly what was going on and how it was being done but you were utterly transported. I suppose in that sense it feels like a – practically, it feels like a breakthrough. But on another level it feels like a breakthrough again because the puppetry is itself part and parcel of the dramatic, intellectual drive of the piece, wouldn’t you say Jane?

JE: Yes, absolutely, but I think probably the difference here is that they did bring in these South Africans, the Handspring Puppet Company, who have twenty-five years or something of experience, and equally, they’ve been working with them over two years, so there’s an awful lot of groundwork that’s gone into this and thought about how you do put a horse on stage that isn’t going to speak, which as David says is quite extraordinary – your central character doesn’t speak! – and into the size of the horse that it’s going to be, that it is, in fact, they are slightly bigger than real horses in order to accommodate the two people inside, the fact that the horse can kind of breathe, that its ribcage expands and contracts, the ear mechanism which they are so very proud of… But they also – although the guys from Handspring aren’t actually on stage which they normally are – they’ve trained these people up. And then also Toby, who plays the father…

DC: Toby Sedgwick.

JE: Sorry, thank you. Toby Sedgwick who plays the father, who apparently is a horse man, and has done all the movement, and has given this extraordinary accuracy into the way that the horses move so that, I think, from the puppetry point of view this show is a huge advance, and from the other point of view, I would say, in its use of the Olivier and in its imagery.

DB: It does seem to use the Olivier in an extraordinary way, again I think picking up from the experience of that team working on Saint Joan. It just doesn’t have – it has no large set pieces. Instead of worrying about the scale of an enormous, cavernous, black amphitheatre which is basically what the Olivier is, it goes, “Yes, it’s very big, but we will focus people with light, lots of…” In Saint Joan you had Anne Marie Duff picked out in specials at the back of the set in a tiny little pool of light, dramatically opposed against the space, and here, you get lots of side light… The most majestic moment, which interestingly is the most painful moment, is when Joey the horse gets trapped in No Man’s Land in barbed wire, and finally (this is virtually at the end of the show) they bring in the famous National Theatre drum revolve, this revolving stage that comes up through the floor like a rising drum, which most shows on the Olivier, if they’re on a big splendid scale, get that in really early and in fact a show like Lord of the Rings which is wildly hailed as a spectacle does the equivalent of that virtually from curtain up and it has no excitement. Here, they’re using that piece of equipment for an entirely emotional and dramatic reason once, and it’s very, very powerful, and in fact the design of the entire show is incredibly spare. You get images of fighting which are done with shadow play by the actor standing at the side of the stage on what looks like a rip of paper in a black sky. It’s very, very deft and very simple and again, like the puppetry, you can see it being done and you still believe it.

JE: And that’s also I think really important, as you say, you can see it like the puppetry because it’s almost as though once the design for the puppets, this kind of outline of the horse that you can see inside, (you can see through the gauze and the cane, and the aluminium that it’s made of), it’s almost as though Rae Smith has picked up on that, and that her drawings that she does on, which as David says, like a tear or a gash across the black at the back, are like outlines as well, and there’s a kind of harmony between the two.

DC: I mean, I thought that exactly, so I thought what was interesting about the design was that in a sense it embodies the paradox of the production in that you’ve got these very clean, simple, organised approaches to design compelling you into a story all about mess, confusion, devastation, and that control, that constant control, you feel absolutely you’re being guided through this story with pristine theatrical precision. In a way you keep seeing connections and parallels, connections between the man and a horse, between the horse and the man, the kind of innocence of the boy, the innocence of the horse, and I think that’s what’s so surprising for me, is that what seems quite a mute device really, the puppetry, the way the men silently attend to the horse, constantly emits this kind of silent dialogue about how the men themselves were betrayed, they were led off like kind of innocent and brutish beasts to be mowed down. That for me seemed to be almost a revelation, that you can do so much with nothing really, effectively, just a handful of…

JE: No, I was just going to say, I mean, all of that, but also the fact that you’re sort of, in your head, you’re admiring the way the horses are operated, you’re thinking, “Oh, God, that’s brilliant, the way they do that,” and at the same time you believe it’s a horse, you know, and you’re juggling with these ideas, which is fascinating…

DB: I do think it’s thrillingly suggestive. It gives you just enough to make the imaginative leap. I mean, it is one of those shows where I became aware of just how rapt the entire auditorium was and I’ve heard about people going to a matinée, rather sceptical and thinking, “Oh, do I really want to see this with a bunch of kids, isn’t it going to be rackety,” turning up at the auditorium, they’re all yelling and screaming whilst they take their seats and then two and a half hours later no one has said a word because they’ve been completely enthralled by it because, as we’re all saying, it sets up just enough to create an imaginative space that the audience is absolutely thrilled to make that leap into.

DC: And it does it exactly so and I think that’s what’s really interesting about those young audiences, is that they hate being patronised and they would hate the idea of a kind of crass, bombastic production, and this production allows your actors to be very subtle, to pick up on very small things. I mean, it’s astonishing really, that such small detail is kind of in some way amplified by the audience’s imagination right across the Olivier auditorium, so these kind of small, bashful looks that the horse gives, on one level enchanting and entertaining, but on another level, just the tiny moment where, for example, the commander that has been championing Joey and also the boy appears as a kind of ghost-like corpse, who is himself a mannequin – you know, that’s not made very big play of, but it’s hugely suggestive about how, again as I said before, the soldiers were themselves in a sense kind of basic puppets in a very malevolent kind of game.

DB: And I also think that there is – whilst I don’t think – the script itself isn’t always amazingly felicitous, it does do some things astonishingly well. There’s a scene where Joey has been commandeered by the Germans, having gone, obviously, to war with the English, and Angus Wright in a rather typically lovely, detailed performance, he’s – there are so many languages going on in a scene where there are people speaking in French because they’re in German-occupied France, there are people speaking in German, there’s very little English, and a central character who’s in the middle of it who obviously is not speaking, and all those things are being juggled in the most extraordinarily sophisticated manner.

JE: You see that’s so much that, as Dom says, that they don’t patronise the audience isn’t it, that they think that kids can cope with all those languages flying around. But I would like just to get back to the puppets, and some of the sort of minor puppets, the minor roles. I mean that horrific image of those two skeletal horses pulling the canon, howitzer, whatever it was, sort of gradually sinking to their knees, that’s unforgettable, that’s going to stay with you forever.

DC: I think so.

DB: And my advice to the National is that they need to sort out their marketing and make sure that you can buy models of the goose. There’s this hilarious goose on wheels that gets pushed around! You sit there laughing away and going, “Why has a piece of wood on wheels got that amount of personality, and can I have one?”

JE: Yes. And that sets up, doesn’t it; the kind of rural, quiet backwater, and then we’re suddenly plunged into the whole of World War I. I mean, I share with David, I don’t think it’s a particularly great script. I think the actors struggle to make a similar mark, except for Angus Wright.

DC: I suppose one of the objections, I mean, we’ve already partly discussed this, but one of the objections that’s made pre-emptively about the piece and by some critics after the event is that we have this terribly sentimental attachment to animals in this country and therefore how easy it is to feel sorry for as it were an animal, and in a sense this downgrades the horrors that the men suffered. I mean, to my money it’s absolutely pertinent that we’re only really able, just about, to look at these puppets, puppet horses and imagine how terribly they suffered, so in a way we can’t really deal. It’s really a play about how we can’t deal with the huge, difficult subject of all those men who died as well. But I suppose you could argue, could you not Jane that actually there is rather a heavy sentimental streak running through this production?

JE: Yes, although actually I – I mean, you read about whole audiences weeping, I mean, didn’t think they milked it too much and it could have been, you know, if you think about Black Beauty, it could have been taken much further. I actually thought the pacing was slightly odd in that they took a long time to establish it at the beginning, which built up to this wonderful moment when the colt, the young Joey, disappears and suddenly the adult horse makes this great stage entrance rearing up at the back!

DC: You can see people thinking, “Is this it? Is this the horse that we’re going to be watching for two hours?” and then you get the deluxe version.

JE: Yes! I suppose they thought, “Well, we’ve got to get people used to the idea, we’ve got to get them going along…” and then actually, at the end, which admittedly is full of rather ludicrous coincidences and sort of pat sorting of everything out, they actually rushed through it, so I didn’t think they were milking it that much, and I felt that, again, I keep coming back to the imagery, but the imagery was about the whole war, it wasn’t just about the horse.

DC: And also by the same token I suppose you could argue that the very pat-ness, the very obvious pat-ness of that conclusion meant you realise at the same time that this never happened, did it? I mean, we never saw a feel-good ending in the First World War, and the gassing of the soldiers reminded you of what was at stake.

DB: I do think that there’s an awful lot of sentiment in this show, which is really distinct from sentimentality. Yes, it makes you feel – I cried in the first half, I sobbed in the second half – and there are a lot of triggers, you could possibly argue there are a lot of triggers from the music. I think Adrian Sutton’s score, which has – basically, it’s a panoply of British composers, there’s Elgar in there, there’s Tippett in there, there’s Britten in there – all subsumed within his own voice. A lot of that does trigger – you know, there’s pastoral music which makes you go, “Ah, the countryside”, and then there’s the difficulty of war which sounds like Tippett’s brass writing, but I don’t think it’s excessive, and I do think that it’s telling, it is aiding you through a story and that yes, actually, it could have been eighty-four times more sentimental than it is, and the moment of reconciliation is not a “Oh how lovely, they’re back together again”. Yes, one is very moved by the reuni0n but at the same time the boy is howling in grief and pain. It’s a very, very difficult moment, as it should be.

DC: And also, I think what it is, you were saying about that music and that Elgarian rhythm that some of the music has, you think really what it’s managing to do is be a requiem for that particular age that died with those horses, you know, the age pre-mechanisation, pre-cars, the England that… Without any form of Jingoism or stupid patriotism or senseless flag-waving, it just feels like that folk theatre, that form of folk theatre we haven’t really seen, I think, as an expression of our own national identity, presented in a very careful, considerate way on stage is quite an achievement, I think.

So anyway, on that note, I think we shall say that this is probably the opposite of a war horse in the traditional sense; it’s alive, it’s vital and it has to be seen. Keep your eyes scanned on the horizon for any tickets that might pop up and dash out and nab them before the Jerries get them.