You’ll cry.’ I was told. You’d certainly have to have a hard heart not to be moved by War Horse. Opening its 10th anniversary UK tour at Canterbury’s The Marlowe Theatre, the National Theatre’s production really is drama at its finest.
Directed by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris, Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book is one of courage, strength and loyalty. Set during the First World War, a much loved horse, Joey, is taken to fight – and his owner and friend Arthur (William Ilkley) follows him.
Eerily realistic, the puppets, by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, are characters in themselves. Clever small movements such as the gentle wisp of the tail, flex of the ears or an angry breath (the horses are played by Joelle Brabban, Chris Charles, Anna Chessher, Nicky Cross, Sebastian Charles and Lucas Button) add to the characterization of Joey and Topthorn. They are never anthropomorphized but exist in their own right.
The stage is adorned by a ripped sheet of paper from Lieutenant Nicholls sketchpad, the doodles on them changing with the seasons and the location. The idea was not for documentary realism but ‘poetic’ visuals, something they’ve achieved and added heaps of emotion to. The brutality of war is never shied away from, and the shellshock of Arthur’s comrades on the front tenderly portrayed. These were boys, and they were scared. A centenary on, we must not forget that.
The soundscape is as impressive as the scenery, with the buzz of the flies, twitter of birds and braying horses just as impressive as the clatter of artillery and ominous music of the accordion player (Bob Fox).
Sat just a couple of rows in front of me was Michael Morpurgo himself. His parents met in 1983 at the old Marlowe theatre whilst part of an amateur dramatics society, and he taught in the city for a number of years. Judging by the number of hugs happening, he’s still well loved by local people.
War Horse will return to the Marlowe from February 27 – March 16 2019. If you can wait that long.
Photo credit Brinkhoff/Mogenburg.