As a Christmas present from our daughter Elena we got tickets for the National Theatre production of Warhorse at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. This would be my third encounter with the story. I had seen the Steven Spielberg film and then read the original children’s novel written by Michael Morpurgo. Both were very good and the film was quite spectacular and pretty truthful to the book. So it was with great excitement that I looked forward to the stage production. And I was not disappointed. The National Theatre have done themselves proud with this stirring and moving production.
The story is by now pretty familiar to most people. The sufferings, brutality and futility of war is brought to life and death in all its horrors through the experiences of Joey, the warhorse of the title. Joey began life on a farm in Devon where he was well cared for by Albert, the young son of the farmer. With the onset of the First World War Joey is sold off to a cavalry officer. Young Albert is distraught, but is too young at first to enlist. Later on he does and sets forth to war primarily in the hope of rediscovering his beloved Joey. Which he eventually does, but not before both are exposed to the unrelenting and unforgiving realities of war.
The National Theatre touring production is simply sensational. This is ensemble playing at its best. The actors and the puppeteers combine effortlessly as the story unfolds. The horses are truly magnificent creations. You quickly forget about the puppeteers manipulating the full size models and at times they look and sound like real horses. The action moves along fast and furious, with only a few interludes of quiet or singing to provide some relief from the bombardment of war. The stage is bare apart from a strange looking shape above the stage. This is a 25 metre wide projection screen which it transpires is meant to represent a torn page ripped from a sketchbook. On this we see images appropriate to the action on stage from peaceful village scenes to the guns and barbed wire of the battlefields. Both this projection screen and the stage itself are violently lit up with blinding light at key moments in the story. Gunfire and explosions sounded ominously real and shocking. There is very little colour to be seen. Costumes and background are predominantly greys and blacks. The nearest to brightness comes from the chestnut brown of Joey.
The actors are all very good and convincing in their sometimes various roles. Though the play highlights the real horrors and sufferings of war, it also brings out our capacity for goodness and friendship, even in the midst of war. Despite all the horrors and cruelty this is a very moving production. It ends fittingly in silence as Albert, now safely back to the farm with Joey, embraces his mother.