REVIEW: ‘War Horse’, Birmingham Hippodrome

Image result for war horse
War Horse‘, Birmingham Hippodrome

  Adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, from Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the same name, with direction from Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, ‘War Horse’ tells of the First World War through the eyes of Joey, a horse raised and trained by Devonshire boy Albert, before being sold to the British cavalry. Before long, Joey finds himself serving on both sides of the war. Albert, meanwhile, unable to forget Joey, enlists in the British army, in the hopes that the two might once again be reunited.

  The First World War saw a loss of life through conflict on an unprecedented scale. However, often overlooked is the loss of animal life. Approximately 8 million horses were killed during the war – a staggering amount. Horses became the unwitting soldiers in this war caused by a divisive mankind. Though not able to understand the cause for it, they suffered the consequences, the decisions of mankind having a huge and often tragic impact. They bore the responsibility of the decisions of mankind. Capable of feelings, such horses were subject to immeasurable panic, anxiety, and fear.

  Yet, these horses were as much bound by a sense of duty – a duty to their riders – as their riders, their soldiers, were bound by theirs. In the play, Joey ploughs fields on a farm, he carries a Lieutenant into battle, and acts as a draft horse, pulling weapons and ambulances for the German troops.

  When discussing the terrible loss of life, one of the production’s characters, Colonel Strauss, refers to horses as “beasts”. Surely, however, in this case, it is the men who are the real beasts? It is their animalistic brutality, their primal savagery, that prolonged the war.

Joey as a foal in War Horse. Photo credit:  Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

  ‘War Horse’ ensures these animals, and the sacrifices they too made, and not only recognised, but are given due respect. Whether human or animal, a life is a life. Therefore, all should be remembered, and this powerful production ensures that a dignified remembrance is afforded to both humans, and their horses.

  The production’s incredible cast each give moving, very memorable performances – powerful, engaging, and truly heartfelt. Thomas Dennis’ Albert is sensational, his interaction with Joey an extraordinary testament to the enduring bond between “a man and a horse”. We see him transition – from playful, innocent boy, to return from the front line a man. Peter Becker’s Friedrich Muller is exceptional, the actor skilfully giving voice to one from whom we do not often hear. Contemplating how the war has made him half the man he was, has caused him to become dead behind the eyes, we see that all men, regardless of their nationality, were affected equally by the war, were damaged equally. Strong performances come from Jo Castleton as Rose Narracott, Joelle Brabban as Emilie, Toyin Omari-Kinch as Private David Taylor, and Marcus Adophy as Colonel Stauss. Aside from the differing accents of some of our characters, they aren’t actually all that different – they all all experiencing the same thing, all fighting the same war, and all subject to the same feelings and emotions, including the same fears. These very human characters are able to bond over these shared experiences, but primarily, and rather remarkably, they bond over their shared love of Joey, and their shared sympathy with regards the plight of horses in war. 

  The production strips back national stereotypes, and presents us with these very human characters, whose circumstances made them enemies, but this one horse made them friends, even if only for a while.

Thomas Dennis (Albert) and Joey in War Horse. Photo credit:  Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

  During one scene, Albert receives a parcel from Ben Ingles‘ Lieutenant Nicholls from “over there” – the front line. The parcel contains the Lieutenant’s sketchbook, which bears a letter with the news that Nicholls has been killed in action. The letter has been tucked in a page on which the Lieutenant drew a picture of Albert riding Joey – in fact, it is this he is drawing when we are first introduced to the character at the start of the play. Immediately sensing that Joey must be in danger, Albert tears the picture from the Lieutenant’s sketchbook and goes to enlist, despite being a mere 16 years of age – three years too young. Albert keeps this picture with him for the remainder of the production, and it is very clear to see that the shape of the paper is exactly the same shape as a larger part of the set – a 25 feet wide screen, onto which images are projected throughout the production.

  At the start of this production, the likeness of the rural idyll of the Devonshire countryside is projected onto this screen – the rolling fields, the village, and of course horses, galloping. As the production progresses, however, and the content of these illustrations change. So too do their style, their tone, and their mood. The previous, gentle strokes become sharp, harsh shapes (inspired by the Vorticism movement in art), as we see the perils of the cavalry’s voyage to Calais, and their first-hand experience on the front line. The Devonshire village becomes French locations, labelled as though targets. When one character is killed, blood spills over the whiteness of this screen, before poppies bloom from the bloodshed. As though from the sketchbook of the Lieutenant himself (straight from the mind of designer Rae Smith, who brings Morpurgo’s vision to vivid life), this screen seems to illustrate his experiences in war – taking the character, and therefore his audience, from the idyll of peacetime, to the reality of war on the front line.

Thomas Dennis (Albert) and Joey in War Horse. Photo credit:  Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

  Paule Constable’s lighting design creates this deep sense of conflict against the predominantly black set, a warring between these two opposites. When the stage was flooded with brilliant light, characters were silhouetted against the backdrop. All creative aspects of this show work together to create a real sensory experience. Light, sound (Christopher Shutt), both are employed to create a landscape and a soundscape that mimics the war. Audiences are thrown right into the thick of the action, as we are transported to, and through, the war. These creative elements produce this canvas of war, a sketchbook, much like the Lieutenant’s, that not only controls the pace of the production, which brilliantly keeps up with the narrative, but that gives us these first-hand illustrations, these accounts, of war, and how war affects, transforms even, a person, which is paralleled by the transformation of the show’s artistic elements as the production progresses.

  After the British cavalry arrived in Calais, the company soon made their first charge. This was a spectacular moment in the production – horses and their riders lined up to charge, essentially, to their deaths. Led by Lieutenant Nicholls on Joey, the company fell prey to a surprise attack from the German troops, and were slaughtered, men and horses alike, no distinction shown, and no mercy. A huge shell made its way towards Nicholls before striking him, after this terrible moment of panic, but acceptance, and his was lifted from Joey by other performers from the sheer force. Around him, men and horses were butchered – men thrown from their horses, and horses gunned down, one crashing to the ground with such force, that it somersaulted along the ground. These fallen horses remained thus for the next scene (that in which Albert receives the parcel from the front), like some horrific warning of the fate of horse in war, casting a terrible shadow over the Narracott family, as life, and death, on the front line began to severely affect life on the home front. This scene, the mindless slaughter of cavalrymen and their horses, conjures images present in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’:

“Stormed at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of hell

Rode the six hundred…

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon behind them

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

While horse and hero fell.

They that had fought so well”.

Ben Ingles (Lieutenant Nicholls) and Joey in War Horse. Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

  The narrative of the production is told through the eyes of a horse – Joey. As a result, the audience are presented with an unbiased view of the war – unprejudiced, neutral, fair. Because Joey does not take sides, neither do we. After being taken from his mother at a very young age, Joey was sold to the Narracott family at auction, before spending time in the British cavalry, in the care of French girl Emilie, and that of German soldier Friedrich. It is through the experiences of Joey that we learn of the universal suffering caused by the war – the same is being experienced by men, regardless of the side on which they are fighting. They are subject to the same inescapable circumstances, same conditions, same emotions and same fears. The narrative perspective is told by an impartial party, which makes this production impartial by default, its audiences watching with impartial eyes. Wasn’t the war itself impartial, affecting all equally. The war did not distinguish between British, French, German, or equine. All were affected, and all suffered.

  The language barrier among characters is cleverly explored. Despite differing accents, even different regional dialects, all characters spoke English, for the benefit of the audience. However, as this would not have been the case in the war, the characters often fail to understand each other, many resorting to that wonderfully awkward British practice of raising the voice and talking more slowly in the hope that might help. However, what is notable is that all characters, regardless of their nationality, are able to communicate with Joey.

Peter Becker’s (Friedrich Muller) and the cast of War Horse. Photo credit:  Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

  Joey himself becomes a symbol for peace, an equine ‘white flag’. When caught in barbed wire on No Man’s Land towards the end of the production, a British and a German soldier, together, release him. Caught on this neutral ground, Joey’s predicament forces these two men to work together, to join forces, resulting in the temporary cessation of hostilities. For this scene, actors run down either side of the stalls in the auditorium, as squat just before the stage, as though the auditorium itself has become the trench, in which audiences are, like Joey, central. Having cut Joey free, the British and German soldier must decide which of them gets to keep him, to which the British soldier jokes that they shouldn’t start a war. A double irony here, perhaps? Given that they are in the middle of war, but also that they should not wish to start of war over something that could be settled another way. A way that wouldn’t involve the deaths of many millions of men and animals. After tossing a coin for Joey, the two men shake hands, the German soldier gives the British soldier the coin to keep, and claps him on his shoulder; whilst the British soldier advises the German soldier to keep his head down.

  It’s no secret that this show blazes a trail with its inventive and imaginative use of puppets, courtesy of the Handspring Puppet Company. The puppets themselves are remarkably designed – life-sized, the provide the detailed framework of a horse. However, it is the movement, the choreography, the performances of the puppeteers themselves which breath life into these magnificent animals. Every flick of the tail, twitch of the ear, shake of the head, stomp of the hoof, every snort, every whinny, every neigh, every nuance, however subtle, of equine life is adhered to. These puppets, these inanimate object, are made to be so realistic, to the point where we actually forget they are not real. These horses, these characters, are given great emotional range, and great emotional depth, and audiences begin to engage with them on an emotional level. These characters are as complex, as rounded, as the play’s human characters, each with their own distinct personality. The goose living on the Narracott farm is no different, and often a source of humour. We not only recognise, but understanding, how these animals are feelings, and begin to connect with them as deeply as do other characters. The interaction between the horses, such as that between Joey and Topthorn, as when the two horses are first introduced, and are left to size each other up, is wholly believable, as is the interaction, the bond, across the species, between man and horse – the moments in which these puppets, these horses, are being ridden, truly magnificent.

Joey in barbed wire, in War Horse. Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

  At one point in the production, when Joey is serving as a draft horse with the German troops, two other horses are led onto the stage, pulling behind them a huge weapon. However, there is such a difference in their appearance when compared to that of Joey, and of Topthorn. These pale puppets had been created in such a way as to resemble nothing but skin and bone – flesh hung from these emaciated, sickly horses. Even their movement set them apart – unlike Joey and Topthorn, they did not, could not, hold their heads high. Their movement was slow and laboured. And, though a small touch, very showing great attention to detail, their eyes were bulging, not set in their heads like that of the other, more healthier horses. And, rather than piercing, keen, aware black eyes, we could see the whites of these horses’ eyes, which serves to make them look even thinner, even sicklier, even weaker.

  After having been rescued from the barbed wire, Joey is taken to a nearby hospital, in the hopes that he might be treated.However, the doctor decides that nothing can be done for him. He takes out his pistol, and fires at Joey. However, by some remarkable act, whether luck, or providence, the pistol jams, and will not fire. Even for those of us who are familiar with the story – who have read the book or seen the film – the audiences are holding their breath, as the doctor is handed another pistol.

  Albert, meanwhile, is himself in that very hospital, having been temporarily blinded in a gas attack. On hearing a commotion, and talk of a remarkable horse, Albert immediately knows it is his Joey, as the deep level of their attachment transcends mere sight. He feels it. Albert whistles, calling Joey, a sound synonymous with their bond and, as Joey runs to him, there is a very touching moment of reunion between the two friends. This reunion coincides with the ringing of the bells, which signal the end of the war. For Albert indeed, it is the  end of his war. The two return home, Albert riding Joey, together at last. “As it should be”.

Thomas Dennis (Albert) and Joey in War Horse. Photo credit:  Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

  The production features wonderful music by Adrian Sutton, and a songbook by John Tams, performed with a beautiful grit here by Bob Fox. Really rather haunting, these songs are so very powerful, their lyrics highly evocative, which enhanced the poignancy, and underlined the sentimentality, of the production, whilst complementing its many themes. The production ended with a song that had been performed at its opening, a song entitled, ‘Only Remembered’, a song which the entire cast rallied together to sing…

“Horses and men, ploughshares and traces

The line on the land and the paths of the sun

Season by season we mark nature’s graces

Only remembered for what we have done”.’

  This extraordinary piece of theatre serves as a very fitting token of remembrance, one that encourages us to remember, not just the fallen men, but the fallen horses, of the war. The power of this production gives us some hope that theatre such as this, art such as this, can go a little way in promoting peace.  

  A theatrical triumph, this awe-inspiring production is one that provides its audiences with a rich and detailed tapestry of war, paying due respect to the senseless loss of life, both human and equine.

  Writing for the programme in September 2017, Michael Morpurgo said of the production, “We still mourn; but now with the benefit of longer hindsight, we see ‘the futility’ of it all, and ‘the pity’, as Wilfred Owen wrote. ‘War Horse’ is not simply a show or a play about a war, a horse and a boy. It is an anthem for peace, and reflects, I think, a universal longing for a world without war”.

  An extraordinary tale of love, loss, friendship, courage, and survival, ‘War Horse’ is a hugely powerful and deeply affecting production that demands to be seen.

The cast of War Horse. Photo credit:  Brinkhoff/Mögenburg



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