War Horse @ Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Reader, I’ve fallen in love... with a horse called Joey, in the National Theatre's thunderous production of War Horse
War Horse, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and adapted for the stage by Nick Stanford, also hit UK cinemas in 2012 via Steven Spielberg. But it’s the play that’s been the worldwide phenomenon. This National Theatre stage production, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, falls poignantly in the centenary anniversary of the end of the First World War.
The story follows the horse of the title – Joey – from foal to loyal companion to Albert galloping through the fields in Devon, to member of allied and enemy forces during WWI, thundering across the stage into the heart of battle as countless horses did in France. Reluctant and innocent warriors, like the young men on both sides who they stood and fell beside.
With each sniff, ear twitch, tail rustle, head nod and hoof stamp, the master puppeteers from the Handspring Puppet Company breathe impossible life and heart into the majestic creatures. And while Joey inevitably steals the limelight, there are compelling performances throughout, in particular by Thomas Dennis as Albert. He gives a powerful, emotional rendition of a young man who vows never to give up the search for his beloved horse across battlefields and past gunfire.
The action of the play (choreographed by Toby Sedgwick) is effortlessly slick, pulling the audience along breathlessly as it tackles poignant themes – war, hate and love. In particular, the battle scenes, punctuated by the sharp bang of gunfire and thunder of blasts in the trenches, lay bare the horror of war as the casualties, both man and beast, lie stricken across the stage. In the background the projector screen of images by designer Rae Smith effectively transports the audience from the rolling green hills of England to the blood-soaked fields of France. Meanwhile, the interjection of John Tams’ folk songs, sung hauntingly by Bob Fox, slice the air as the raw melodies soar.
While war is a universal scab on humanity, Joey is an enduring symbol of hope. The scene at No Man’s Land, where he becomes entangled in barbed wire and both sides call a temporary truce to free him, is particularly moving, revealing how humility can transcend language barriers, battlefields, fear and hate.
A heart-thumping, thunderous, galloping, triumphant production, and crucially a story of hope and love surviving the terror of war. A tale of people trying to keep their heads while all around them others are losing theirs. A glimpse of peace. Outstanding.
Festival Theatre, until Sat 12 May