First Night: War Horse, Olivier, National Theatre, London

Horse's tale provides a thrilling and emotional atmosphere

By Paul Taylor
Thursday 20 October 2011 13:43

For their Christmas family shows, some theatres take a vacation from high artistic standards and indulge in a little cheerful end-of-term laxity.

At the National, if anything, there's an intensification of creative daring in these seasonal pieces, as the excellence of His Dark Materials and Coram Boy has demonstrated in recent years. And quite rightly, too, for it's these pieces that can show a young audience what the medium of theatre can uniquely achieve.

The National's proud tradition continues now with this extraordinarily fresh and moving production of War Horse, adapted from the Michael Morpurgo novel about Joey, the half-thoroughbred farm horse who is sold to the cavalry, shipped to France and pitched into the thick of the First World War, undergoing horrific ordeals until finally reunited with Albert, the boy-turned-soldier who had reared him back in Devon. Staged with thrilling flair by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris in the epic space of the Olivier, the show establishes its singular identity through the use of uncannily beautiful equine puppets created by the South African company, Handspring.

Morpurgo's novel employs the Black Beauty convention: a first person account of his experiences by a horse with a preternatural command of the English language.

That's fine as far as it goes but the shared cross-species attributes somewhat blunt one of the book's key points – that war is a man-made atrocity and that the exploitation of the noble, innocent horses should add to our sense of shame.

Imparting a superlative sense of emotional depth, the stage version refuses to anthropomorphise the animals. More than life-size and manipulated by a team of puppeteers, each horse is both intensely physical in the quivering life that pulses through its bendy bamboo armature and see-through skin and abstract as though it were the spiritual essence of a horse.

Though not assembled through "found" objects, the puppets reminded me rather of Picasso's wicker-basket goat sculptures. There's that same sense of the animal and metaphysical. The whiffling, the rearing and bridling in protest, the pricking ears, the supple eloquence of the telescopic neck: you acknowledge the mysterious otherness of Joey at the same time as identifying with his pain.

I was reminded of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke who could not bear to be in the same room as a dog not because he disliked dogs, but rather the reverse: he records that he could not bear the fact that we have raised these creatures to a soul for which there is no heaven.

Underscored by folk songs and dark-hued pastoral music and with atmospheric animated drawings of war flashed on to a gash of paper that spans the stage, the show contains disturbing sights. This must be the first Christmas show ever mounted where a carrion crow is seen nibbling a dying horse.

But the piece is also profoundly cathartic in its moving demonstration that our relationship with animals can be one of the richest of humanising experiences.

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