I have seen some great theatre in my time.

  • King Lear (Shakespeare) at Stratford about fifteen years ago (although after two hours I was wishing Lear would just finish himself off and stop philosophising aloud).
  • The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui (Brecht) at the Contact Theatre in Manchester in 1974 when I went with my sixth-form German group and our Assistentin – who was left in tears. The play (about the rise of Hitler) ended with the stage blacked out between two huge Nazi flags and photos of brutality and the concentration camps projected onto a small screen – followed by the actor who played Ui/Hitler telling the audience (words to the effect that) Hitler may be dead, but his bastard offspring are not. No one could speak as we left the theatre at Manchester University.
  • Mamma Mia (!) – just to be the only bloke in an audience of 20-something women laughing and singing our way through the ridiculous plot and wonderfully banal Abba songs.

But last night beat the lot. I had seen the National Theatre‘s publicity for Michael Morpurgo‘s play – set in the context of the First World War – when it was on at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank, but I never had the opportunity to go. Last night, after dinner with some good friends, we put that right.

Morpurgo wrote the story for children, seeing the war through the eyes of horses who don’t choose which side they are on. The synopsis of the play tells the following story:

At the outbreak of World War One, Joey, young Albert’s beloved horse, is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France.  He’s soon caught up in enemy fire and fate takes him on an extraordinary odyssey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone and 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 stillIt sounds almost silly. But it is the most engaging, emotionally powerful and arresting production I have ever seen in a lifetime of theatre-going.

The whole theatre is used – with actors standing among, coming out of and running though/into the audience – drawing us into the action rather than leaving us as spectators of someone else’s drama. The sound and light are superb and the projection of ‘scrap book’ images above the stage is powerfully evocative. The horses are operated by teams of puppeteers, but you soon see them as real. They are astonishingly life-like in their movement and behaviour – and it is hard to imagine what research, engineering and work went in to making them work so effectively. The acting was superb and when the explosion that closed the first half ripped through the auditorium, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, body tense and emotions shredded.

Anyone who has read the First World War poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke will come to this play already sensitised to the horror and humanity-wrenching futility of war. But Morpurgo has brought to the familiar narratives a new perspective – seeing the action and cost through the experience of an animal rather than a partisan human being.

War Horse posterUntil last night I had no idea that (according to the programme notes) in the 10% of France invaded and devastated by 1918 (from pre-War figures) the number of cattle and draft oxen had reduced from 892,000 to just 58,000; horses and mules from 407,000 to 32,000; sheep and goats from 949,000 to 25,000; and pigs from 356,000 to 25,000. In the same area 293,039 houses were destroyed, 435,961 houses seriously damaged, 436 million cubic yards of trenches and shell holes had to be filled, 448 million yards of barbed wire removed, and so on.

One million horses were taken to France from Britain. Only 62,000 returned.

If the opportunity arises to see this production (currently at the New London Theatre in Drury Lane), don’t miss it. It is stunning at every level.