War Horse was a co-production between the National Theatre, London and Handspring Puppet Company, South Africa.
At the outbreak of World War One, Joey, young Albert's beloved horse, is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France.
Joey is soon caught up in enemy fire, and fate takes him on an odyssey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone in no man's land. But Albert cannot forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist, he embarks on a treacherous mission to find him and bring him home.
War Horse is based on the 1982 novel by the Children's Laureate (2003-05) Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford.
'War horses' were horses that were either part of the cavalry or used as draught horses to pull ambulances and guns. Robert Butler’s piece for the NT programme gives an example of the intense feelings that soldiers had for the horses:
‘One of the most widely-reproduced illustrations to have come out of the First World War shows a man kneeling in the middle of a road, cradling the head of a wounded horse. Behind him, smoke billows from a shelled house, and a compatriot (further up the road) urges him to move on quickly. The soldier’s cheek is pressed against the horse’s cheek. The caption reads: “Goodbye Old Man.” It’s melodramatic, of course; but the harsh fact is that more than eight million horses died during the First World War.'
The play stresses the differences between how animals and humans react to the same situation: horses are incapable of cynicism, they treat both sides equally.
The life-sized puppets of horses are made by Handspring Puppet Company, led by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler. The horses are made out of cane, which is bent onto plywood shapes, tied together with twine and covered with translucent fabric. The fully-articulated horses have two interior and one exterior manipulator. Aluminium spinal structures allow them to carry human riders. Due to the translucent coverings, the audience can see the inner workings of the horses on stage.
See our features here on War Horse and on the power of puppetry to enact animal and human behaviour.
War Horse opened at the Olivier Theatre on the South Bank, and played at the New London Theatre in the West End.
Production team includes
'...our relationship with animals can be one of the richest of humanising experiences.'
'The joy of the evening, however, lies in the skilled recreation of equine life and in its unshaken belief that mankind is ennobled by its love of the horse.'
Directors: Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Puppet Design and Fabrication: Basil Jones & Adrian Kohler
Designer/Drawings: Rae Smith
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Music: Adrian Sutton
Photographs above are by Simon Annand.