It seems ironic that the most undesirable part in a school play is the role of rear or front of a horse, second only to that of a tree, or perhaps a lonely cloud floating in the background. In Warhorse, however, the actors that breathe life into the mechanical horses, particularly Joey and Topthorn, are the stars of the show.
There is no attempt to make these animals look realistic, in the sense of them having flesh, eyes, etc., with the overall appearance consisting in a lattice and mesh design. But this is what makes the production so moving, because the studious way in which the actors inside the construction move Joey gives him a timidness and gentility that makes the audience immediately fall in love with him. The designer, Rae Smith, mentions how he opted for ‘poetry’ over ‘documentary realism’ – a decision that would have perhaps improved the recent Lion King film. One of the most poetic and beautiful instances in Warhorse is when a horse dies, and the actors that had been fuelling it stand, and slowly step away. Directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris do not try to hide the fact that there are people beneath the horses’ skeletons, and during this scene, it feels as though it is not the actors leaving this horse behind, but its soul.
Albert (Scott Miller) brings tremendous energy to the stage, and injects undeniable verve to every scene he is in. This could perhaps have been reigned in when we first meet him, just to tug at the sympathy strings a little more and underline his role as the downtrodden son, who finds solace and growth in his companionship with Joey.
The unsung hero within all the action is the Songperson (Ben Murray). His lyrical croons are interspersed into key moments in the plot, and add to the sense of tragic foreboding that accompanies the poignant decisions made by the characters. He acts out his mini-ballads with enough nonchalance so as not to take away from the main scene, but through this he also conveys a feeling of apathy, of defeat, as though because he is removed from the central action he can see the futility of it all.
In the play notes, Micheal Morpurgo states that he was inspired to write the original book because of his experiences with family members who had been involved in the war, as well as the touching story of a boy he met on his farm who had a terrible stutter, and had consequently refused to speak altogether at the age of seven. However, one day Morpurgo saw him talking to one of the horses, because he knew it would not judge or mock him, and what’s more, the author saw that the horse seemed to be listening.
He has said that he intended the tale to be one of ‘reunion and reconciliation’, but that Nick Stafford and the National Theatre have transformed it into an ‘anthem for peace’. The common nature of one’s fellow man is a pivotal theme that is conveyed brilliantly, culminating when Joey is trapped in No Man’s Land. We get a view into trenches on either side, and each hesitantly sends a man up to help the horse. What follows is a hilarious exchange between the Englishman and German, both of whom speak English to the audience, but cannot understand each other, underlining how this is all being perceived from the neutral standpoint of Joey. It is a moment which stresses how alike people from all nationalities are, and ridicules the excuse of the language barrier in justifying hostility. It is a message that is arguably more relevant than ever in the current political climate.
While this may well be the theme that critics pay most attention too, what resonates with me the most is Warhorse’s portrayal of the special, and sometimes magical, nature we can see in animals. The bond formed between Joey and Albert is one that desperately refuses to be relinquished, despite every obstacle possible being thrown its way. It is a tale of unconditional love, and the bravery this can inspire. Perhaps Morpurgo wants to show us how this love inspires far greater feats than the hate of war ever can, which only provokes further bloodshed.
A mention has to be given to the outstanding staging, with every battle scene being punctuated by ominous fog and jarring lights, the cracks of gunfire literally making audience members (including myself!) jump in shock. Throughout the entire performance, the backdrop is carved open by a huge, torn scrap of paper from Albert’s sketchbook, on which drawings are portrayed and pained letters are scrawled. As another death plagues the battlefield, its jagged edges are tainted by blood seeping through the paper, before the red splatters evolve touchingly into poppies.
This is a special play that pulls you along through the mud, trenches and barbed wire of World War One, as you experience every emotion from despair and fear, to laughter and hope. It leaves you in No Man’s Land as the curtain falls, unsure whether to feel satisfied with the uplifting conclusion, or despondent due to the tragedy that had to be experienced in order to get there.