Sunday, 9 November 2008

War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo

It’s not often that one goes to the theatre and runs out of superlatives to describe a play. This is what happened to me last week. Our book group went to see War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo, which is on at the National Theatre, and we were blown away by the production.

Michael Morpurgo wrote the book, War Horse, for children and adults. He had wanted to write about the madness and carnage of the First World War (1914-1918) and the part that horses had played in it. And the sad fate that became most of the horses in France and Flanders.

The story is told through the eyes of a horse, Joey, who is reared on a Devon farm by a young farm lad, Albert. His father sells the horse to the army and Joey is shipped out to Belgium. There he plays his part in the war as a British cavalry horse that is captured by the Germans and used to pull guns and ambulances.

Albert joins up to find Joey but it seems that both he and Joey will meet a sticky end. However, in the style of all good fairytales, the baddies get their come uppence and everything comes right in the end. We had a group of eleven year olds in front of us and they were transfixed but the eighteen years old behind us (who fidgeted more!) were just as complimentary in their appreciation of the play.

The acting doesn’t stand out particularly but the adaptation and direction of the piece is excellent and the design of the set is absolutely stunning. The story moves very quickly from one scene to another and the devices used (lighting, videos, revolving stage, rolling or rising constructions) are brilliant. It is a visual treat that will hold the interest of not only children but theatre phobics too.

The horses are life size puppets made of jointed wire and steel made by the Handspring Puppet Company, a South African company of marionette makers. This makes sense to me because wire work animals and models are quite an art in Africa. The large puppets are manipulated internally and externally and the nuances, movements and character that the puppeteers manage to imbue them with during the performance is very clever. Their movements are so lifelike, subtle and moving that it is quite enthralling.

A war artist sketches during some of the scenes and moving images are projected on to the backdrop that are reminiscent us of the work of the First World War artists such as Paul Nash. Poems and songs in the play remind us of the First World War poets too. My blog of 11 November 2007 covered the poetry and prose relating to the war: if you like Vera Brittain, AE Houseman etc then just go to the archive for 2007 on your right to read the blog about them. War Horse was particularly moving for us as it was so close to Remembrance Day.

Morpurgo has written over 100 stories, most of them for children, several of which have been made into films. I haven't read any of them but I shall also now read his novel, A Wide Wide Sea. This book is also aimed at children and adults, the story inspired by the fate of the children shipped out to Australia after the Second World War, and the neglect and abuse some of them suffered. The novel is very well thought of and I shall read it as soon as I have the time. But first I shall read War Horse: the play was a real inspiration. We need to be reminded that war ravages not only countries and cultures but every living thing.


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