Real heroes of ‘War Horse’ cast a spell

The puppets in ‘War Horse’ charm and beguile as only horses can – such is the astonishing skill exercised

The National Theatre’s award-winning production of War Horse comes to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from March 26th to April 26th. We spoke to the director and a few of the show's performers about bringing Joey's story to life. Video: Kathleen Harris

Wed, Mar 12, 2014, 01:00

Resignation; the merest gesture of resignation made by a cavalry horse bowing its head and submitting to being harnessed to a wagon, which is hauling a massive field gun. It creates a moment of devastating grief, a sensation only possible in theatre. There is no hint of rebellion or protest; some of the soldiers appear to be embarrassed. But the horse, Joey, has been through this before.

In his previous life on a Devon farm, a wager made by a drunk forced him, a riding horse, to plough a field. In the chaos of battle, screaming shells and flashing lights, dirt and fire, men are dying.

Yet the most powerful sense of tragedy in War Horse is the outrage perpetrated against Joey and his friend Topthorn, a magnificent black thoroughbred, an officer’s mount, who is far more bewildered and vulnerable than Joey.

Michael Morpurgo saw War Horse published quietly in 1982 and it was largely forgotten within his large oeuvre, until the stage show opened in 2007. By now almost two million people have seen the National Theatre’s London production of the story, and more than four million have seen the show worldwide. He prefers the theatre version to the pedestrian movie, directed by Steven Spielberg and released in 2011.

Raw emotion
For many, any debate about theatre versus cinema when it comes to handling raw emotion could be decided by this show. Theatre can cast a spell that eludes cinema regardless of advancements in special effects. War Horse on stage, with all respect to the wholehearted human cast, is dominated by two slightly larger-than-lifesize equine puppets: Joey is 18 hands and Topthorn 20 hands.

Both were made by the remarkable South African Handspring Puppet Company according to the Japanese b unraku or open-body style, using cane, leather and a synthetic fibre with an aluminium-reinforced spine to carry an actor. Three puppeteers, operating the head, heart and hinds, are kept busy replicating the movements of a horse.

Joey and Topthorn are strange and eerie, utterly compelling and convincing. These expressive puppet horses emerge as the tragic heroes, easily upstaging the humans. At a performance in Manchester, we become aware of sobbing in the aisle. An elderly man in a wheelchair is crying openly: “Those poor horses, those poor horses.” Such is the power of theatre combined with the emotional appeal of horses.

War Horse is unsettling; these puppets charm and beguile as only horses can, such is the astonishing puppetry that pays as much attention to the expressive twitch of an ear as the replicating of a horse’s action at full gallop.

In essence it seems a simple story, with broad country accents and music; Song Man, a balladeer saunters across the stage throughout, as a commentator of sorts.

Young Albert is the son of two very different parents; his mother is kindly and practical. She wants her son to be happy; she also wants her struggling family to survive. Her unreliable husband enjoys drowning his sorrows and has a quick temper. An apparently characteristic bout of madness causes him to purchase a beautiful foal at a local sale instead of the sturdy work horse he needed.

For the mother it is a disaster; for the boy it is love at first sight. The father’s vanity and foolishness result in the daft wager with the local squire; train the horse to pull a plough or lose him. The petty local squabble is soon overtaken by the news that war has been declared. The landowner fails to claim the horse, because the war does.

The scene moves from a country village to the front where the English class system prevails as the farmers and ordinary labourers serve in the infantry, while the officers engage in suicidal cavalry charges.

For Morpurgo, who was born in 1943 in St Albans, a part of Hertfordshire that belongs more or less to the greater London suburban sprawl, war was part of his life from earliest childhood. He played on bomb sites, which he describes as “the most exciting playgrounds”.

One of his uncles had died in the war and Morpurgo’s heroes were fighter pilots. “War has always been one of the most enduring themes of my life, my generation grew up in the shadow of it; it was always there. I was evacuated, to Cumberland, but the war never went away.”

Even on a crackling phone, Morpurgo sounds every inch the wonderful man people who know him personally describe him as. He spent 10 years as a teacher and not surprisingly his feel for stories took over. The idea for writing about a horse that serves on the Western Front came to him unexpectedly, after he and his wife moved to Devon in 1976.

“I had already written about war. It was an obvious subject for me, but the horse angle was different, quite unexpected. I’ll tell you what happened, I know I’ve told this so many times.

“I had been told that there were three men still living in the village who had been alive during the first World War and two of them had been soldiers in it. I met one of them, he was very old by then, but we got talking and he told me that he had gone to war at 17 and had looked after the horses.”

Innocent animals
The terror experienced by the soldiers must have been multiplied for the horses. Morpurgo recalls that he contacted the Imperial War Museum to find out how many British horses went to war. He was told the figure was not quite a million. I ask if that included the Irish horses despatched to France.

“Do you know, I’m not sure? But I was told that only 65,000 horses returned.” That figure shocked him. “It made me realise that the horses, these innocent animals, suffered the same horrors as the men.”

The class system also determined the fate of the surviving horses. “Only the ones used by officers got back, the others were sold off to French butchers.”

Did the towering presence of Black Beauty (1877), Anna Sewell’s pioneering polemic, which is also told in the first person from the viewpoint of the horse, influence him? Morpurgo laughs apologetically. “Do you know, I had never read it. Claire, my wife has always loved that book, but I had not read it before I wrote War Horse .”

The British equine losses were part of an overall death toll of more than eight million horses that died in the Great War serving in the various armies.

Morpurgo sees Joey’s experience as a way of honouring all the horses who died, but Joey also helps remind the soldiers of their own humanity, which has been compromised. Two soldiers, one English, the other German, rush to assist Joey when he becomes entangled in barbed wire in no man’s land.

It is now a century since that war began and it is unlikely that any survivors who served are still alive, yet many of their children, now themselves elderly, could be – and no doubt many of them may have seen War Horse . The schoolchildren applaud the show in Manchester, leaving the middle-aged and older weeping discreetly.

About an hour before the curtain rises on any performance of War Horse anywhere, a team of performers will be seen warming up like athletes before a race. They are the men and women who create the movement within the horse puppets, which, in addition to Joey and Topthorn, also include Coco and Heine. There is also an opinionated goose, a natural scene stealer. Admittedly he is a touch of poetic licence; there is no goose in the book.

Before the German opening last October, Joey stopped traffic in Berlin. He should do the same in Dublin. Theatre remains capable of evoking wonder and, as the Irish more than most remain aware, there is something magical, ethereal and consummately heroic about a horse.

War Horse is at the Bórd Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, from March 26th

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