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I was walking to the Tate Modern on Thursday morning when I passed the National Theatre. I had seen reviews of War Horse and wanted to see it, but all the performances on while I was in London had sold out. I thought I might as well see if they had any day tickets left but it was about an hour after the box office opened, and noticing the ‘queue for tickets starts here’ sign, I didn’t fancy my luck.
Last ticket, front row middle, ten pounds. Awesome.
War Horse tells the story of the first World War through the eyes of animals that have no possible interest in political events. The horses are played by brilliant, life-size puppets, operated by up to three puppeteers per horse. They are constructed in a way so that the human characters can ride the puppets. I’ve never seen anything like it.
The review I saw in The Guardian said that once the performance begins you forget that you’re watching puppets rather than actual horses (and geese, swallows and ravens). But I don’t entirely agree.
I love good puppetry. But I don’t think in watching puppetry you ever forget that the puppets aren’t real. I think that the reason puppets are so enthralling is because they instantly take you to a sort of mythical level of storytelling. You understand and believe the story, but you never loose the sense of awe invoked by watching objects become characters.
That sort of idea is reflected in the puppet design for this production. The makers of the horses were not primarily concerned with realism – the frames of the puppets are a central feature of their design and they have no hide. Later in the play an injured and emaciated horse limps on three hooves and a limb that looks more like a piano leg. The puppeteers are dressed in early twentieth century style farm-hand clothes (rather than stage blacks) and act out the emotion of the horse they are playing on their faces – they are not intended to be invisible.
These puppets do not need to look like real horses to be convincing; the way that they move is entirely persuasive.
War Horse is based on a children’s book, but I think the play is certainly too violent for very young children, particularly when so much of the violence involves animals being abused by people. A woman in the row behind me actually screamed when one of the horses died.
The appeal of the play goes beyond the simple affinity people tend to have with animals.
The helpless horses are a good analogy for the people who put their lives at risk during the war with little motivation but patriotism and trust in authority. I wouldn’t call the play emotionally manipulative, but it was certainly deliberately affecting. War Horse was first performed at the National Theatre in October last year and is already back on stage. I think it is a brilliant example of how effective the broader theatre arts can be.
National Theatre in association with Handspring Puppet Company
Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo