ARTYFACTS: War Horse - National Theatre

Sunday, March 08, 2009

War Horse - National Theatre

My grandfather was a professional soldier, or rather Cavalryman in the First World War, and also fought in the Second World War. He loved horses and most of the images we have of him are with his horse, at home or in the army. He also won the Military Medal for bravery and was wounded several times. Like most of his contemporaries, he wouldn't (possibly couldn't) talk about the war, as she had seen things of unimaginable horror. All of this made War Horse pretty special for me personally.

Good theatre depends on the suspension of disbelief and this is hard enough with people, but imagine a story that depends on you believing that a horse made of wood and canvas is real. Not only that, but that this horse actually has feelings towards another horse. You can hardly believe it yourself, when the foal appears and you get drawn into it's corporeality. Then, when it appears as a full grown steed, and gallops off stage, the audience burst into admiring applause at the sheer leap of the imagination by the person (people) who thought they could pull this off. You can't have real horses acting, so this alternative is inventive.

The story is weak and has to progress and resolve itself in a series of crude moves and coincidences, but it's our fascination and empathy with the horses and people that make it work. It's based on a children's story, so a tragic ending is out of the question, however, if it had galloped towards a tragic finale, it would have been a superior play. The folly of species man, and his inhumanity to other men, versus the simple loyalty between man and animal.

The pastoral scenes (complete with dodgy accents) plays out as the characters and horse are introduced. Family conflict then war show humans to be combative but the core, pure love of a boy for his horse continues as he becomes a man and soldier.

The war scenes, especially the horse drawn cannon and tank entry are spectacular, and brilliantly staged. I wish I could say the same for all of the acting. It's all a bit forced and shouty. In the end, however, it's the wooden horse that's the start of the show.

It's a testament to the show that the horse's hind legs fell off in the first act, so the show had to be stopped for twenty minutes, but they resumed and it made no difference. Brilliant and life affirming evening.


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