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War Horse

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 18 April 2008

One of the biggest successes of Nicholas Hytner’s reign at the National Theatre has been the autumn ‘family dramas’. Both His Dark Materials and Coram Boy returned for second seasons due to their popularity and success. So this year’s offering, War Horse, has high standards to live up to as it tells the tale of the First World War through the actions of Joey, a horse. Matthew Amer attended the first night at the Olivier.

The coming together of Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott, two directors unafraid to take risks with their theatremaking, is a mouth-watering concept, and in Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse adapted by Nick Stafford, they have an epic story with which to fill the blank canvas of the Olivier stage.

Young Devonshire lad Albert puts his heart and soul into raising Joey, seemingly his only friend in the world, with whom he builds up an understanding, a bond and a friendship. But when the chance comes to make a quick buck from the steed, Albert’s drunken ne’er-do-well father sells Joey – now a fully grown hunter – to the army to be taken into battle in Belgium.

The horrors of war are never glossed over in a production that shows both sides of the story. When Joey lands in Calais, his troop is met by the walking injured, hauntingly masked as they trudge away from the front. The discovery of machine guns and barbed wire, both previously unheard of in war, has stark effects, indelibly imprinted on the mind of the audience.

The Germans are never vilified. This is not a tale of good and evil, it is a treatise on the similarities between the sides and the ridiculousness of war. German officer Friedrich Müller (Angus Wright) is as compassionate and fraught as any English officer and builds his own bond with Joey as strong as that of Luke Treadaway’s besotted Albert, while the vagaries of meetings in no-man’s land show the bizarreness of the fighting.

The central performance comes not from a speaking actor in this largely ensemble production, but from the incredible puppet Joey. A lattice shell of a full-sized horse worked imperiously by three puppeteers, his powerful, imposing stature is remarkably expressive and emotive. The sight of him galloping is heart-stopping. In fact, all of the puppets, worked by a mix of actors and puppeteers, are both beautiful in themselves and beguiling as characters. Never before have I seen so many people laughing at the antics of a goose on wheels.

Presiding over proceedings, Tim Van Eyken’s Song Man provides the role of the chorus, commenting on the turning of time and the plight of those fighting and those left behind in the folk songs of John Tams, while Joey’s journey is given epic augmentation by Harvey Brough’s sweeping score.

The puppetry, projection and performances blend to create a narrative that is enthralling, a tale of the hardships of war and a bond of friendship that cannot be broken. em>MA

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