In a recent Guardian Blog post, American critic Matt Wolf tried to suggest that the reason that British audiences were so moved by the Nick Stafford’s new adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book can be simply explained away by the “fact” that the British are ludicrously sentimental when it comes to animals. The theory is, frankly, horseshit.
Granted, from the get-go War Horse is well and truly aimed at the tear-ducts. Indeed, by the end of the opening sequence - mechanical swallows flitting across projected pencil sketches of pre-WWI agricultural idyll all to the lush strains of some very fine ersatz Vaughn-Williams - the audience was well on its way to a collective welling-up. But the real engine of the play is a very human story of love lost and found. Albert Narracott (Luke Treadaway - twin brother of Joy Division drummer Harry) is an awkward sixteen-year-old. When his father drunkenly outbids his step-brother for a half-thoroughbred riding horse at the local market he takes it upon himself to train the horse, who he names Joey, spending hours with the creature building bonds of mutual trust. After getting into, and out of, a few scrapes and having clearly established a real bond the outbreak of the First World War sees Joey sold to the army for use as a cavalry charger. The parting between the boy and his horse is sad enough, knowing the carnage that the horse is being sold into makes it impossibly tragic.
Even though this is nominally a children’s show, directors Marianne Eliot and Tom Morris do not flinch from making the War utterly hellish. The cavalry’s first doomed charge sees Joey’s rider shelled off the horse in slow motion and thrown to the back of the stage. Later when Albert runs away from home to follow his horse across the channel, his platoon is greeted with the sight of blasted men and puppets being stretchered back to Blighty. Sensitive children may have nightmares populated by the ragged, skeletal horses that have been pressed into service pulling a piece of heavy German artillery for weeks.
Impressive as the human actors are - the sheer force of Luke Treadaway’s emotional honesty as a lovelorn 16-year-old boy is utterly heart-rending - the puppetry does have a habit of quietly stealing the show. Mostly though how unobtrusive it contributes wholly credible presences to the stage. That the horses achieve a startling degree of life-likeness, without once ever once appearing naturalistic is a fascinating achievement in itself. Indeed, Rae Smith’s overall design for the play cleverly echoes Vorticist war artists, rendering heavy ordnance, trenches and even a tank as thick-lined Futurist versions of the reality. Wrapping such a simple and affecting story in such bold design is an effective decision and lifts the entire production several notches above the sentimental soup that could have resulted.
No, the play isn’t ashamed to have a big heart at its centre. It is a play about love, and about how love can make normally fragile humans to endure dreadful suffering in search of the thing they love. In this case it happens to be a horse. It could just have easily and more usually would have been a girl or boy. Somehow, because it is a horse, the play crosses all manner of cultural, class, religious and sexual boundaries, and becomes readable as a simple triumph of good fortune and Dickensian coincidence in the face of incalculable odds.