By Catherine Buckland
“Never work with children or animals”, goes the saying, and it’s easy to see why. In the National Theatre’s production of War Horse, there may be no real animals to suddenly give birth in the middle of a Children’s Church production of the Nativity story, but it is certainly true to say that the animals still retained much of the limelight. “Sure,” the audience will say, “some of the actors’ performances were compelling, but you should have seen the goose on wheels.” (I did see the goose on wheels. It was excellent.)
War Horse, for those who don’t know, comes from Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 book of the same name. The book was also the source material of the 2011 blockbuster directed by Steven Spielberg, but as I have still not seen it, it will not be mentioned except in passing to say how gosh darn fine Mister Hiddleston and Cumberbatch look on horseback.
Back on point, War Horse was adapted for the stage in 2007 by Nick Stafford.It spent two years at the National Theatre, before transferring in 2009 to the West End’s New London Theatre, where it has resided ever since. It follows the story of Albert Narracott, a farm boy from Devon (for you Yanks, that’s down the pointy end of England) who is tasked with training a horse which he names Joey. When Joey is sold to be an officer’s horse at the outbreak of the First World War, Albert lies about his age and enlists so that he can save his beloved horse.
This is, therefore, not a cheery play. Whilst (spoilers) the ultimate ending is uplifting, the events of the story does an excellent job of capturing the futility of war. Just as George RR Martin said to starpulse that he wants his “readers… to be afraid when my characters are in danger,” there is not a single character that the audience does not at some point fear for. Morpugo was inspired by a “very frightening and alarming” painting that pictured horses charging at barbed wire fences, and this disturbing view of war remains very much intact throughout the play. War is shown as a brutal, often futile endeavour, which takes from us our family, our friends, and from that which we hold most dear. This was depicted most successfully through the use of puppetry.
The South African-based Handspring Puppet Company is in charge of portraying the various animals throughout the show, to great effect. For a story based around a horse, there needs to, surprisingly enough, need to be a strong equine presence onstage throughout. In truth, there are not one but two Joey puppets needed for the show: a foal (or, as my mother gave me as a quote “there’s a really cute little baby foal”) puppet, and an adult puppet, both of which are operated by three puppeteers.
The Japanese style of puppeteering, known as Bunraku, is put to excellent use: no effort is made to conceal the puppeteers (a technique also employed in the staged version of the Lion King), but, due to the skillfulness of the animal’s portrayal, this does not distract from the action onstage. The audience remained transfixed throughout (there was a round of applause the first time the adult Joey puppet appeared onstage), and both horse puppets took their own (much-deserved) curtain call at the end.
However, this, in my opinion, came at a cost. Whilst the portrayal of the animals was stellar, their human counterparts were less startling. Whether this is the fault of the actors, or the fact that there was a freaking horse galloping around the stage is unclear, but ultimately I left the theatre with a far stronger impression of the animals than of the humans sharing their stage. Whether it was intentional or not, the actors consistently played second fiddle to their equine counterparts, which, in a stage show with only two horses, and over twenty cast members, seems wrong to me.
Of course, like many other people there I’m sure, I wanted to see War Horse first and foremost due to the ground-breaking puppeteering on show. But I also went there to see a stage show and, I have to say, I was more moved at the death of (spoilers) Topthorn the horse, than that of any of Topthorn’s human counterparts. Perhaps that was intentional: the original book was told from a horse’s perspective, and therefore the death of the same species would move it more, I don’t know. But the partnership that should have been there between puppet and actor was not there. Perhaps the saying should be changed. “Only work with animals if you know that the goose on wheels will not get a louder cheer at the curtain call than the main character.” (It really was an excellent goose.)