There is no denying that War Horse has found a place within the hearts of the British people. Now in its sixth year, including a worldwide tour, this National Theatre production shows the possibilities when hard work and love is put to the test. Set during the First World War, War Horse sees Joey, a strong and beautiful riding horse being reared by Albert (Luke Jerdy) until he is volunteered for the war effort. Joey finds himself serving England before being caught by the Germans and put to work. Albert meanwhile pines for his beloved horse and runs away from home in a quest to be reunited on the front line. Michael Morpurgo’s novel has been adapted well for the stage, although it can’t be said it was always the case.
For this reviewer it is not the first time that Joey has appeared on the New London Theatre stage. Back in 2009, I reviewed War Horse and found the script weak. Nick Stafford’s adaption was, and in many ways still is, thin, with the story stretched out. It’s a story of companionship and of crossing boundaries within the war, but once again I’ve left the theatre feeling a coldness. This indifference stems from Morpurgo’s story, one that I struggle to relate to, and even if I look at the themes of the piece: love, hope, resilience and struggle. I still find little room for the piece in my theatrical memory. Something doesn’t stick, the story doesn’t move me or give me a sense of the journey that the characters are meant to have gone on.
In many ways the production is charming, especially the first half which has a gentle and rural quality to it. The opening is particularly striking, not for its dramatic power but rather for its subtly and care. As for the puppetry work, there is no faulting Handspring Puppet Company for their craft at bringing alive the dynamics of these creatures. Naturally, the puppeteers are to be championed as the stars of the shows. After a second watch, perhaps my disengagement with War Horse comes from not connecting to this central character of a horse. Joey is used as a form of marketing for the National Theatre, attending events, staging mini spectacles on the roof of the National Theatre, and in television commercials, that instead of a spectacle of craft, I see money and marketing. If this is the case, then it is sad for me that I can’t sink into the magic of the production without seeing the profitability of this central character.
I’m not saying there is anything wrong with War Horse being a success at the box office. Funding for the arts is entering yet again another perilous moment under the current government, and whilst the Arts Council England might continuously put the National Theatre onto the pedestal for its entrepreneurship and business sense, War Horse has allowed for other works to find their feet through its subsidy. There certainly is nothing wrong with that! I just wish that the joy of seeing a live stage production with realistic and beautiful puppets would linger longer than the short walk to the exit of the theatre.
As for the cast, they are all suitably talented. Jerdy makes a fine Albert, and is supported by the ensemble considerably well. Yet again I find myself frustrated at the role of Friedrich Müller (Richard Cant) whose shift from stern German officer to realising the affects of war and attempting to save the horses, rambles and leaves the second half lacking in dynamic. The constant switching of languages, whilst reflecting those caught in this war, does become tiresome. It feels very heavy, and I’d even been inclined to say it becomes a tad trite and boring. However all is not lost. As a whole, a second viewing of War Horse does reveal the extensive work that has gone into tightening the script and to refining the staging. Directors Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott have created a performance that captures the hearts of those who flock to see the show, and whilst it doesn’t completely break through my stoney heart, it clearly affected the rest of the audience.
Theatre should do its best to offer its audience a gift, something to captivate them during the show and last for days afterwards. War Horse clearly has a mass-market appeal, and with the increasing number of tours around the world it is clear that Joey will keep on galloping for many years to come. It might leave me cold, but the piece has certainly evolved and grown since 2009. It doesn’t leave me a parting gift of wonder, but other audiences have found much within Morris and Elliott’s direction and the work of Handspring Puppet Company. It clearly has captured British hearts, and who am I to get in the way of such a force? If I liked all I saw I’d feel dejected by the very thing I love – the magic of theatre. So War Horse, may you continue to gallop, but don’t expect me to spectate again. We’re just not meant to be together (unlike Albert and Joey, clearly).
War Horse continues its run at the New London Theatre in the West End. For more information and tickets, see the official stage show website of War Horse.