War Horse opened at the National Theatre in 2007 and since then it has been seen by five million people all over the world. Few theatre productions have managed to touch a nerve in this way and become nationally and internationally known. Few productions are as cleverly thought through and emotionally well judged. It is a simple story of the relationship between a horse, Joey, and Arthur, the young lad who trains him and brings him on. When the first world war breaks out Joey is sold by Arthur’s father and sent out to the front as an officer’s horse in 1914. Arthur enlists in his turn with the simple, heart-rending, hope of finding his horse and bringing him home. I will not spoil the ending as there are still several people who have never seen it, and when the original book was written by a fearless and unsentimental writer like Michael Morpurgo a happy ending is by no means guaranteed. Suffering is a different matter.
Five million people can’t be wrong. This is an extraordinary piece of theatre, perfectly judged and precisely performed, which never descends into the mush of clichés that it could so easily have been. Everybody talks about the puppets, and no wonder. Handspring puppets took two years to develop them in the workshop at the National (the best investment the NT ever made) and the two full size horses, Joey and Topthorn, each operated by a team of three puppeteers, live and breathe on stage- it is as simple as that. Every nuance of the horses behaviour is there. You can feel their fear and pain and understand their every thought. I cried for them, and I mean sobbed- not just a polite tear down the cheek. I don’t do that often.
I have seen a lot of good theatre and been very moved by it without weeping, but there are personal reasons why War Horse moved me so profoundly that I still wouldn’t be able to describe it to you properly without tears. My grandfather was a Yorkshire farmer who worked with shire horses all his life and he was out at the front still working with the horses whose job was to pull his battalion’s field artillery guns from position to position. They did this in the worst conditions possible without the stabling and feed that was really required. It was heart breaking for horse men like my grandfather. The war began for the horses with insane cavalry charges straight into the fire of the German machine guns, with predictable results, and descended into long, grinding suffering. There are records of whole groups of men lining up to pay their last respects to a well loved battalion horse and sometimes a horse had to be shot simply because it had sunk down into the mud up to its neck. 160,000 British horses were requisitioned in the first six weeks of war and in the end they were fetched from all over the world. It is estimated that eight million of them died. The more research you do the worse it gets.
I am not really old enough to have that kind of direct personal connection with the great war but my mother was a very late baby and my grandfather lived healthily until he was ninety so I was lucky. I also rode a lot when I was younger and anyone who knows horses well will understand how intolerable it must have been for animals of their temperament.
It gives me great satisfaction that it is a piece of theatre that has provided the tribute that those horses and the men who cared so much about them deserved. It is a universal story of suffering and reconciliation, a new version of the ancient quest narrative. We won’t see its like again.