Review: War Horse

What is the easiest thing to swallow in this phenomenally successful show set during the carnage of the first World War? The horse, of course

Cpt Stewart (Gavin Swift)  during rehearsals of War Horse. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Cpt Stewart (Gavin Swift) during rehearsals of War Horse. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


War Horse

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin


Just watching him at rest is a pleasure. To see Joey’s chest rise and dip almost imperceptibly with his breathing, notice his ear pivot or hear a quick snort, is to appreciate the artistic marvel of bringing the principal character of Michael Morpurgo’s novel to the stage. If only the people in War Horse seemed quite as lifelike.

The phenomenal success of the Royal National Theatre’s production, first seen in 2007 and now performing throughout the world, owes a huge amount to its collaboration with South Africa’s remarkable Handspring Puppet Company. Morpurgo’s book is told from Joey’s perspective, making the horse an attentive witness to the brutality of the first World War. He moves from a Devon farm to the British cavalry in France, before briefly transferring to the German side, pursued by his besotted 16-year-old owner, Albert.

Nick Stafford’s stage adaptation makes the horse more watched than watcher, the rust-red centre of attention for both the characters and the audience. It also simplifies the story beyond sentimentality: boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy attempts to get horse back again.

One problem, made slightly sharper by the centenary of the war’s outbreak, is how to present an event beyond living memory with a toll that is barely comprehensible. The escalating perils facing one noble steed are easier to absorb than 10 million deaths in the first mechanised war. Both Stafford’s play and Rae Smith’s animated art works, projected on an evocatively torn overhead screen, sketch the shell-shocked context, while folk ballads ask continually how the story will be remembered.

It brings about a curious combination of naivety and gravity, where the children’s book narrative is stretched thin against the expanse of the historical backdrop. When Joey is delivered into the service of the Germans (horses are neutral), we encounter an unusually different perspective, admittedly not without scar-faced and heavily “ekksented” cliches. “It’s barbaric,” says the conscientious German officer, Friedrich, of the British charge into barbed wire, machine-gun fire and certain death.

It’s there that the play and production arrive at a shiveringly arch comment: just as mechanised warfare turns country boys into cannon fodder, the exquisite puppetry asks you to ignore the people behind it. War Horse may be a simple story, but all those onstage bodies, subtly summoning places and crowd scenes, are a monument to the overlooked. Finally, the most villainous character speaks the greatest truth, reprimanding Friedrich’s sentimentality (and perhaps our own) when he compares the horses to children: “What about the countless men who died here? Why don’t you show some pity for them?”

War is inhuman, we realise, and the spectacular artistry of the show makes it easier to sympathise with the animals.

Until Apr 26