The first time I read Michael Morpurgo's novel, War Horse, was in 2007, for class. It was in that same year Nick Stafford's stage adaptation of the book premiered at the National Theatre. I didn't see it. I don't particularly like going out into the centre of London in the evening, knowing that I'll be travelling home in the dark, and won't be home until extra late.
The play got glowing reviews, and everyone was blown away by the puppets created by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company. Just seeing the pictures in the newspaper, I knew they were something special. It has seen been performed in New York, Toronto, Melbourne, and Berlin, as well as going on a US and UK tour.
War Horse's success is evident by the fact that it is still running seven years later. In fact, in January 2014, the show gave its two thousandth performance. Quite fitting, given it is the centenary year of the First World War. As part of the anniversary, on the 27th February, The National Theatre aired a live show to cinemas across the UK. I was in one of them.
I have been wanting to see War Horse for a long time, but as I said, am not keen on going into the centre of London late at night. The fact that I could now just walk into town was an opportunity too good to miss.
Starting at 7pm sharp, I did not have to sit through the usual run of annoying adverts and trailers. Instead I was treated to a chronological history of the show's production, followed by a few short notices about other National Theatre productions that are soon to be shown live (King Lear, The Curious Dog Incident, A Small Family Business). It was also rather novel to see a live view of the audience who were actually in the auditorium. I wonder if they knew they were getting their fifteen minutes of fame on the big screen.
Then a hush descended, the lights dimmed out, and Ben Murray came onto the stage. The bard was a fantastic alternative to a recorded soundtrack; he sung country folk songs about the land and the people, which set the mood for every scene.
This naturalistic mode of storytelling ran throughout, most noticeably with the set design. Instead of big stage pieces to indicate the location, the creative team came up with an ingenious projection screen, inspired by torn sketches from a sketchbook. The only physical set pieces were wooden poles representing fencing, and this minimalist approach allowed for seamless transitions from one scene to another.
The lighting was incredibly atmospheric; golden beams shinning down on sunny rural Devon were in dramatic contrast to soft spot lights creating a haze in the pitch black of No Man's Land. Flashing lights, smoke, and shrill sound effects made you feel like you were facing a torrent of machine guns, grenades, and shell fire. Everything was extremely cinematic (and not just because I was in a cinema); Scenes of battle were acted out in slow motion, and while this had the potential danger of looking kooky and comedic, it was in fact heart wrenching.
As good as the actors were, the true stars of the show were the puppeteers. The horses may have been made of mesh and wicker, but they were as good as the real thing. Their anatomy was spot on, and the puppeteers captured every nuance of the creatures' movements and behaviour. I was impressed by the horses' gait, those slight head twitches, and the awe-inspiring way they reared on their hind legs. The most masterful feat of all, was the breathing. I could seriously forget that these horses were not real, and I definitely forgot that there was anyone inside them. Some of the scenes, where the horses are withering on the ground, dying in agony are truly harrowing.
The play is two and three quarter hours long with a twenty minute interval. During that interval, there was an interview with author, Michael Morpurgo, and the co-director, Marianne Elliott. When asked why he thought War Horse was such a universal story, Morpurgo said that when he first wrote the book in 1982, he didn't think it was universal because hardly anyone read it. Over time, however, it grew in popularity, probably because it deals with current issues, and tells the story, not of a historic event, but of a shared hope for peace.
Elliott went on to discuss her inspiration for the minimal stage design, which was decided on because they wanted to show off the beautiful puppets. The interview was followed by a short clip from a behind the scene documentary, showing how the production was made. This documentary, along with the play is available on a region-free DVD from the National Theatre shop.
War Horse is as every bit as good as the critics say, and if you are not close enough to get to the National Theatre, then there are several Encore performances in cinemas between the 2nd - 31st March. You can find out where your closest screening is from their website.