'The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them' Act V, Scene I, A Midsummer Night's Dream
Ten years on from its premiere at the National Theatre, and after a subsequent seven-year run in the West End, War Horse is now dazzling its audiences across the UK with its spectacular tour. Part play, part spectacle, War Horse has rightly become legendary.
Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, about a relationship between a man and his horse, it seemed an impossible book to stage. But Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris made their vision into a stunning reality which has been moving audiences to tears for 10 years.
The dazzling puppet design of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler makes you forget you are watching fabricated creatures. Coupled with the brilliant work of the Handspring Puppet Company who give Joey (the horse whose arduous story we follow) his companion Topthorn, and a cohort of military horses animated life, the audience’s imagination is inspired every night into this war-torn, equine world. The company don't aim for picturesque realism but with their wooden framework and extraordinary mobility somehow they capture the very essence of everything equine. Each horse is operated by three people with one person controlling the intelligently reacting head. We see Joey magically transformed from a nervous and energetic colt reduced to the drudgery of pulling a plough, into a bucking, rearing animal equipped for cavalry action.
The show expertly recreates the horror of war through bold imagery, including a manually-operated tank which menacingly rolls across the stage, and through the moving line-drawings of Rae Smith projected onto a suspended screen. Unfortunately, the performers are slightly overshadowed by the action as all the memorable moments of this show are undoubtedly the product of the transcendent puppetry. Mere humans such as Thomas Dennis's Albert, Peter Ash's surly father and Martin Wenner’s sympathetic German are dwarfed by the massive technical ingenuity on display. However, not enough can be said for the tender and angelic voice of Bob Fox whose soothing folk songs take us through the narrative. Echoing Oh, What a Lovely War! in the use of ballad-song to counterpoint military desolation, Bob Fox allows for moments of tenderness to be expertly weaved into the harsh realities of war.
In an emotional post-show speech for the 10th anniversary, creator Tom Morris spoke of the immense need for an audience’s imagination to make this show work. Making his cast applaud the audience for 10 years of suspending their disbelief, he implored the audience to remember the importance of storytelling and imagination. Warhorse reminds all of us of the incredible potential theatre has to move us; it’s a must see!
Lottie Amor, English Literature student