NTLive War Horse Broadcast, Feb. 27
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel and adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, War Horse has been running in London since 2007, starting out at the National Theatre before being transferred to the West End in 2009. Since 2011, productions have been staged on Broadway, in Toronto, Melbourne and Berlin, with national tours in the US and UK.
Being neither a fan of puppet shows nor of so-called “tear jerkers”, I have to admit that I was very sceptical at first, but still wanted to see what all the fuss was about. At the heart of the show are the amazing life-sized puppets by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, who bring the horses (and other animals, I’m talking about you, Goose…) to life on stage. The puppeteers are not hidden away or work in the shadows, dressed all in black, but they are an integral part of the performance, moving, living and breathing – and neighing – for and with their characters. The acting of the supporting cast, i.e. the “real live characters” is solid throughout, even if the German speaking parts are a little funny to listen to for a native speaker, but the accents were surprisingly good. I also loved the way the story was moved forward through the score and the songs by folk musician John Tams, performed by Christopher Dickins and members of the cast. The sparse set, designed by Rae Smith, and especially the cleverly used projection screen, also fit the production well. It’s clear that the entire crew worked hard to take nothing of the focus away from the real stars – the puppets and the actors animating them.
The live screening was watched simultaneously (or in case of North America near simultaneously) by a whopping 155,000 people worldwide, the largest screening of a National Theatre production yet. The interval interview, conducted as usual by the expendable Emma Freud, was less cringe-worthy than her previous stint with Josie Rourke for the live screening of Coriolanus earlier this year, and both an adorably awkward Michael Morpurgo and co-director Marianne Elliott tried to answer Freud’s extraneous questions with grace and dignity.
Since the owner of this blog abandoned me for Doctor Who, D’Artagnan and The Stig* (do I sound slightly jealous? I do? Good.), I took a fried who is neither a regular theatre goer nor fluent in English, and she was able to follow the story without any problems, and was just as impressed by the production as I was.
*note from ButMadNorth: I stood you up for Captain America in London, dear sister; the (just) causes for jealousy went down the days prior in Liverpool.
The play starts out in rural Devon, where main protagonist Albert Narracott’s (Sion Daniel Young) father Ted buys a foal at an auction just to spite his brother. Despite the lack of mortgage money resulting from the purchase, Albert convinces his mother to raise the foal – named Joey – until he is ready to be sold with profit. Horse and boy quickly form a strong bond. On the outbreak of World War I Ted sells Joey to Lieutenant James Nicholls, who promises Albert to take care of Joey and bring him back after the war. In France, Nicholls is shot and killed, and his sketchbook is sent to Albert just before Christmas, triggering Albert to run away and enlist, lying about his age. Meanwhile Joey falls into the hands of a German officer, Friedrich Müller, who loves horses and despises the war, and after he is killed, Joey and another horse, Topthorn, are forced to work as draft horses, pulling heavy artillery. When Topthorn dies from exhaustion, Joey runs away during a tank attack, getting caught in barbed wire between the enemy lines. Each side sends out a man under a white flag to aid the horse. Flipping a coin after they free the horse, the British soldier wins and takes the wounded horse back to their camp. Meanwhile, Albert is blinded by tear gas and sent to field hospital. He tells his story to a nurse as the injured Joey is brought to the camp by the soldiers. Just as Joey is about to be shot and killed, Albert hears what is going on. He whistles to the horse, who goes to him as he always did. As the soldiers learn his story, they agree to let Albert care for him. Boy and horse return home safe to Devon at the end of the war.
Out of interest, I watched the Stephen Spielberg movie after having seen the live screening of the play, and in typical Hollywood fashion he managed to add inconsequential plot lines and souse everything in pathos. It is still an entertaining film to watch, especially if you haven’t seen the play, with good performances and epic cinematography, but still, Hollywood: Why? WHY? But that should probably be the topic of a different blog.