Sitting in the second row, surrounded by gunfire, clouds of smoke, wounded horses and the feathers of a flapping goose, I (silently) bawled my eyes out. Transfixed throughout the whole show, War Horse at the New London Theatre absorbed me in a way which I haven’t experienced for a very long time.
I don’t let myself watch any animal hospital type programmes and change the channel if the news features a story on animal cruelty. I refused to watch the film of War Horse, despite assurances that the ‘distressed animals’ sections were minimal. So it was with some apprehension that I went to review War Horse, which has now been showing since 2007.
The puppetry in this production is completely incredible. The Lion King has made us familiar with this type of ‘visible puppeteer’ work, where those operating the animal are openly apparent but a combination of great costumes and exceptional skill make the animals very lifelike. In The Lion King, I wouldn’t be the first to comment that the way the actors are amalgamated into their animal costumes and puppet parts ends up making a whole that is neither actor nor animal but something even more wonderful than either.
The method and result is not quite the same with War Horse; the internationally-renowned Handspring Puppet Company operates the huge horse puppets in an entirely visible way, often completely outside the body of the horse. As each horse requires at least three and often more puppeteers to operate, it is difficult to grasp without seeing it for yourself just how this could even be possible without losing all sense of realism and authenticity. Yet within minutes – or even seconds – something magical happens. Not only do you not see the puppeteers anymore – unless you choose to specifically watch them – but the animals become living, breathing, realer than real beings.
It is difficult to describe how this happens, but a second row viewpoint put me in a perfect position to judge just how good this effect is. The total immersion of the puppeteers into their roles as parts of a horse is wonderful to watch, although such is the elegant, powerful beauty of the horses as characters themselves that it is actually difficult to focus on the humans alongside for more than a few seconds.
War Horse is an epic, with a plot that takes the audience on a gripping journey across lands and through history. In typical epic style the story begins at home, with domestic scenes on a farm including Joey the horse as an adorable foal and a funny flapping goose who, despite a minimal role, captivates the audience immediately. This quickly escalates into an odyssey as World War I breaks out and both Joey and his young owner Albert are caught up in battles, trench warfare, death and terror.
Based on the celebrated novel by Children’s Laureate (2003-05) Michael Morpurgo, War Horse is riveting, consuming and very moving. There is no question that the horses are the stars of the show, but they are ably supported by a talented cast. It was impossible not to leave feeling drained (my sniffs were audibly echoed throughout the rest of the audience too) but thrilled and in love with the horses; a testament to the skills of the puppeteers who take a back seat in order to let these creatures shine through.