Review: War Horse @ WMC
"Concerning the war, I say nothing - the only thing that wrings my heart and soul is the thought of the horses - oh! My beloved animals - the men - and women - can go to hell - but my horses; I walk round and round this room cursing God, for allowing dumb beasts to be tortured - let him kill his human beings but - how CAN HE? - Oh, my horses!" - Sir Edward Elgar to Frank Schuster, on hearing of the outbreak of World War One.
This year sees the centenary of World War One loom over us all. The arts are particularly keen on the subject.
With the National Theatre Wales' Mametz opening next week (I missed a rehearsal of this to do this review) and War Horse getting its Welsh premiere, June has been a month engulfed with The Great War.
War Horse is one of those shows that you simply have to see. It's no surprise it is the National Theatre's biggest-selling show ever. With the masterful use of puppets from the Handspring Puppet Company with a brilliant ensemble of actors, singers and the rough and raw illustrations of Rae Smith, it's an evening that is both remarkable and moving.
The horses which aided soldiers on both sides are the forgotten heroes of the war. Over a million horses were sent to the front, very few made it back (most ended up on French dinner tables for food). This show written by Nick Stafford and the original book by Michael Morpurgo pay great homage to these creatures who without which, the war could have been drastically different.
Joey, a foal purchased for a farm in Dorset is raised by young Albert Narracott. With their bond ever increasing, the fate of war billows and their paths remove and disappear as Joey is sent out with the soldiers. Vowing to see him again, Albert enlists in the army to save his most beloved horse from the turmoil of war. A little French girl, a German officer and an eye infection from tear gas and much more all complicate Joey's return to his master.
This is stirring stuff and the true horror of war is on display here. We as an audience are put through it: blinding us with lights, stuffing our ears with booming noises and bangs, jumping us out of our seats with multiple guns going off over the space of the evening. A massive tank, which I half expected to remonstrate the audience, had moments of awful grandeur. A fight scene between Joey and Topthorn the black horse was electrifying and should have been longer. The moment when Topthorn tumbles over and dies, as the three puppeteers operating the creature, stand aside, pause and then leave was chilling. In another hair-raising moment Lieutenant Nichols is blown off Joey in battle by a swirling missile. The puppeteers carry him off, erect in a starfish position as Joey rides on unmounted.
Occasional flurries of humour help dampen the greatly upsetting nature of the whole experience. A scene with a German solider and a character simply dubbed Geordie (from Newcastle) try to get Joey out of the barb wire he has got himself stuck on in No Man's Land. They both try to explain to each other they can't understand the others language (both spoken in English though). The puppet goose another delight which is happy to pester anyone who dares go near it and its attempt to make it into the farmhouse.
Lee Armstrong as Albert is destined for more great roles in the theatre. His sincerity and adorable Devon accent made him so loveable and his determination so admirable. This first night audience burst to their feet as he arrived on stage for the curtain call as the puppeteers operating Joey gallantly raised the horse up on his two back hoofs. Truly all involved (even with the absence of the band cut from the show) made this a shining example of what great theatre can be.
My god, what more is there to say? Go see it! Go see it!! Go see it!!!
Related Article: Preview: War Horse @ Wales Millennium Centre
Photo Credits: ProMo-Cymru