I read the book War Horse some years ago, long before it became so famous. That was during me ‘children’s book’ phase. I spent many months thoroughly enjoying some old books of mine and some current bestsellers. Michael Murpurgo became a firm favourite and I’m still picking them up in charity shops. You may not know that I also have an interest in WW1 and so War Horse was an emotional and enjoyable book to read.
Then I saw a programme on TV about the stage play. I saw how the horses were going to be put together and played. It was something I’d never seen in my life before and looked absolutely incredible. I knew then that I wanted to go and see it on stage as soon as I could.
The National Theatre have been playing it in the west end for some time now and I was planning on how to get down to see it, when my baby bought me tickets last Christmas (yes, over a year ago!) for when it came to Edinburgh. Best seats too – second front row of the stalls.
Would it be an exaggeration to say I’ve been excited for a year now? Well, obviously not every waking minute but whenever mention was made of War Horse my heart would go clippety-clop. Friends have been to see it, of course, and have waxed lyrical. “Oh you’ll love it, Ruth!” they cry. And so I have waited and waited and on Friday my time had come. Then you worry. What if I don’t like it as much as everyone else? What if it doesn’t work for me? Silly billy.
(NOTE the following contains spoilers of the story and production!)
It was the most wonderful piece of theatre I’ve ever seen. Standing ovation theatre, in fact. I’m not one who usually cries at films or books but there is something about the theatre which has been known to make me well up. (I think that’s the could-have-been actress in me! I’ve been known to sob and gasp as the curtain goes up, for heaven’s sake.) In War Horse it was the sight of the very first glimpse of Joey as a foal which got me hunting for the hankie. But do bear in mind that I’ve not been well this week, had lost my voice and was really meant to be in my bed. However, I went through two cloth hankies throughout the evening, sobbing quietly to myself. It was the horses wot dun it. They were just so … glorious… majestic… breathtaking. I’d been told that very quickly you don’t notice the puppeteers. That wasn’t true for us, but it didn’t make it any less beautiful. What the puppeteers did, their focus was exquisite. Never for one moment did their attention stray from their job, be it breathing, flicking a tail, stamping a foot or twitching an ear. I could have watched that all night long. I want to see it again now!
Am I gushing? Yes, I fear I am. Of course the story itself is what first drew me to it and that is beautifully done. There are a few changes but they don’t detract from the book really. I think the National Theatre did it extremely well and I loved the use of fences and poles to mark out areas on stage. The torn piece of the artist’s notebook which became the partial backdrop was a stroke of genius and well used. The gun shots scared the living daylights out of me each time – even when I knew it was coming – but perhaps that was because we were so close to the front. The continual smoke did catch our throats but I guess it was to allow people to get off and on stage without being noticed and I can see it was really effective during the war scenes. Big howls from me and others when Joey got stuck in the barbed wire. Oh my goodness, how heart rending was that? A horse screaming was gut-wrenching.
For my son it was less about the story and more about the horses – and the goose! I could see that the mechanics of it were what grabbed him. For me it was all of it. The birds soaring out above our heads, the horses, the lighter moments of the goose, Albert’s mother… och it was all wonderful. I’m gushing again!
And then it was over. And the cast came on. And we leapt to our feet with all those around us. I’ve never done that before. The cast looked genuinely touched too.
Just go and see it. Ok?
Oh you have? Tell me what you thought.