Having looked at the baleful offerings for terrestrial TV on Christmas Day I soon realised there wasn’t a single programme on any of the channels at any point that I actually wanted to watch; in fact, I can’t believe that, what with staying at home being so high profile at the moment, it was all so unrelentingly awful. Thank heavens for the relatively new streaming on demand service from the National Theatre which always has something worthwhile and doubly so at the moment as they are running the staged production of War Horse for just a month. I had “been to the National” the day before to sample their pantomime Dick Whittington which wasn’t altogether successful; War Horse, however, was a different matter.
It’s one of those shows that has become almost legendary. Starting in 2007 it played for nine years in London before embarking on a tenth anniversary UK tour. In all it has played to eight million people in eleven countries and effectively quick started Marianne Elliott’s elevation to the directorial elite. Not bad for a story which author Michael Morpurgo could never imagine being turned into a stage production; in fact, when he was told the National’s plan he declared “They must be mad”. Well, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” because as well as an artistic triumph it has also been a huge income generator for the theatre and it’s interesting that at this time of acute financial crisis it has been brought out of the stables once again to provide a revenue stream via the new on demand service.
And, let’s face it, it’s also a very timely Christmas present for 2020 with its story of an embattled nation which eventually wins through and with its messages of mutual tolerance and respect for humans and animals alike. Telling the representative tale of the horses that were sacrificed in the First World War alongside the myriad of human life, War Horse centres on Joey raised and trained by young farm hand Albert (Siôn Daniel Young) to the point where they form an inseparable bond; except that war intervenes and they are separated when Joey is commandeered for the war effort. Albert joins up to try and locate his missing soul mate and the second half tells of the parallel experiences of human and horse as they both learn to survive the horrors of battle. The ending is a total “gotcha” even when you know what is coming; whether there is a reunion or not you’re bound to be helplessly emotional and that, of course, is the drama’s power. That said, questions have been consistently raised as to the manipulative nature of the finale but as it started life as a children’s book there was probably nowhere else for it to go.
I’ve not read the original but Nick Stafford’s adaptation by all accounts does a fine job in preserving the spirit and letter of Morpurgo’s book. Neither does the script make any easy and overly child friendly concessions. The full impact of war on life is starkly shown and the German and French dialogue is often in those languages rather than been anglicized with a cod accent. This helps to imbue the piece with a realism that is seemingly at odds with the artificial nature of the puppetry on display. Although after a couple of minutes the collections of cloth, wood and leather effectively ceases to be puppets and becomes full blown cast members such is the artistry of both the operators and Handspring the company that collaborated with the National in creating these iconic characters. Designer Rae Smith keeps the stage expansively open (presumably a necessity with such huge puppets to manipulate) echoing both the pre-war countryside around Devon and the vastness of the French battlefields; another creative high spot comes in the form of Paule Constable’s evocative lighting.
Maybe it was the perspective of watching the play on a home screen, but the actors often seemed appropriately dwarfed by their surroundings with the sweep of the action given it a filmic quality (and it has to be said that the staged production is so much better than Spielberg’s film). I was also struck by how much Adrian Sutton’s cinematic underscoring was used to highlight the action. This did not, however, diminish the power of some of the performances on display, notably from Alistair Brammer as Albert’s shell-shocked cousin, Josie Walker as his mother and, in a rare touch of comedy in this play, Paul Hawkyard as his company sergeant. The large ensemble company contains no star names and is all the more effective for that.
As a Christmas night treat this probably couldn’t have been bettered and certainly outclassed the execrable telly on offer. Boxing Day programmes don’t look to be much of an improvement so give yourself a late present by renting this or even fully subscribing to the National’s on demand programme. A whole year of National Theatre goodies – it almost (almost) makes me look forward to 2021.
War Horse is available via the National Theatre At Home on demand service until January 20th – click here
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