“War Horse”. Edinburgh, February 2014. (…with spoilers!)

I saw the National Theatre’s production of War Horse a couple of weeks ago; it was a moving, haunting experience. And surprising, too: I would not have believed how quickly one could empathise with what are basically puppets. The operators got a standing ovation at the curtain call.

From the very start, the puppets were credible. There was no attempt at pretence: the wildlife on stage were clearly attached. And it didn’t matter. A bird flying on a pole was a bird, and the actor updating it was also a bird. And when Joey, the titular War Horse, was whipped, the audience felt it. The sell out crowd winced as one. The horse-puppet convinced, its ears and body conveying as much as feeling as words could.

The bucolic, pre World War 1 setting moved swiftly to optimistic officers making promises they couldn’t keep and thence to the extensive horror of the trenches.

The staging was compelling. The set was made of shadows and a few wooden outlines; the lights and sound made blinding explosions real. A cloud-like banner was used to set the scene. There several moments of great theatre; the tank ruling remorselessly across the stage was chilling; Joey’s scream as he is caught on barbed wire absolutely horrifying.

The use of an animal as a cipher allows the humanity and cruelty of both sides of the conflict to be drawn out. Undoubtedly sentimental – though of itself that is a triumph, getting the audience to really care about an equine model – the play emphasised the changing nature of the world early in the twentieth century: the perceived honour of war giving way to industrialised killing; the passing of a way of life as Europe moved into the modern era.

With 2014 being the centenary of the start of the “Great War”, there are bound to be many disturbing reminders of the futility and horror of war over the next few years. “War Horse” was a very effective, moving addition to the genre.

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