Wednesday 24 April 2019

War Horse at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre review: 'An immersive, visceral visual experience'

4 stars

War Horse Tour 2019. Scott Miller, Rianna Ash, Alex Hooper, Mark Matthews. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg
War Horse Tour 2019. Scott Miller, Rianna Ash, Alex Hooper, Mark Matthews. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg
Fiona Ness

Fiona Ness

His head swings high, his ears cock, his body poised and taut. When Joey stamps the ground, he stamps the world down. We might feel ambivalent towards the human characters in War Horse, an award-winning theatrical production based on the Michael Morpurgo novel of the same name (they have, after all, come straight from a children’s storybook) but we live every moment in thrall to the majesty of the horse.

It is 12 years since England’s Royal National Theatre first staged War Horse, and to great acclaim. A collaboration with South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company rendered the horses in astonishing mechanical form. As the tale unfolds it takes three - sometimes five - men to do what comes naturally to one animal. By the time Joey is fully grown he is a 16-hands high hunting horse who moves through the stage like a breath of russet wind. When he jumps, he is a hurricane.

WAR HORSE Tour 2019
WAR HORSE Tour 2019

The majesty of the production now precedes itself; many of us have seen the detail of its amazing, balletic puppetry dissected on TV. The wow factor has dissipated to the extent that now when people talk about War Horse, they don’t talk about the mechanical mastery, the pathos of the production, or the futility and horror of war. They talk mostly about tissues. You should have tissues at the ready for War Horse, people say, because this is a real tear jerker.

So can War Horse again command the attention of the audience of Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, five years after it first showed here in Ireland? Of course it can.

War Horse Tour 2019. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg
War Horse Tour 2019. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

The story itself is simply - for an adult audience perhaps too simply - told. Joey belongs to Albert, a 14-year-old farm boy, who raises him from a foal, only to see him sold by his father to a British Army lieutenant. Joey is then shipped off to the front where Albert, now aged 16, finds a way to follow.

They say it will all be over in time for Christmas, but the people in Albert’s village remain as their young men return from the war only as names on telegrams. “Perhaps this village has just been unlucky,” says one father to another.

War Horse Tour 2019. Tom Stacy, Domonic Ramsden, Andrew Keay, Tom Quinn, Lewis Howard, Samuel Parker. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg
War Horse Tour 2019. Tom Stacy, Domonic Ramsden, Andrew Keay, Tom Quinn, Lewis Howard, Samuel Parker. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Joey finds his way into the hands of German officer Friedrich. He is one of only two souls to make it across no-mans land on a cavalry charge, and over the barbed wire of the opposite trench. Horses are neutral creatures, loved by both sides.

Nick Stafford’s stage adaptation leans heavily on the musical theatre genre, using lyrical storytelling and a crowdswell of a capella singing to support the interplay of complex movement and simple dialogue. Artwork and animation by Rae Smith is beautifully rendered on a background of torn parchment that emulates the paper drawing of Joey torn by Albert from a sketchbook.

War Horse is an immersive, visceral visual experience. You feel elated but part of you remains numb. The pity of war pervades.

In War Horse we experience both the best and the worst of the human spirit. We invest ourselves in the hoped-for triumph of one boy and his horse, and give remembrance to the old lie of the war to end all wars, where 10 million soldiers, and 10 million horses, died.

Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris.  Revival director: Katie Henry.  Until April 27

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