War Horse

· culture ·

I watched a fascinating documentary on Channel 4 about the making of War Horse a theatre production of the book written by Michael Morpurgo about the bond between a boy and his horse, intertwined with the First World War. The amazing thing about the production (I should say the most amazing thing, because every aspect looked brilliant) is the puppet horses. They are huge, skeletal beasts made of a wooden framework covered with gauze, and operated by three people. The open structure means that you can see the operators, but the framework cleverly suggests the bones and musculature of the horse, so that it’s almost like looking at an anatomical diagram. The puppeteers are incredibly skilled, and manage to move this enormous structure in such a way that you completely forget about the puppeteers, the wood and the gauze, and just see a real, live horse. It was rather like the puppets in the production of His Dark Materials that I saw, but much more impressive because of the size and complexity of the puppets. The horses breathe, shift their ears and heads in very naturalistic ways, and even gallop across the stage.

The scenery and staging was wonderful too, with a ragged strip of backcloth like a torn-off strip of paper, on to which various scenes were projected. The rest of the set of the battlefield was constructed and lit to resemble the rather harsh, angular paintings of many First World War artists, like Paul Nash, and they had a live folk band along with recorded sounds to provide the audio backdrop. It all looked and sounded amazing.

However, I know that I could never go to see this play. Why? Well, I would have to be helped from the theatre in a soggy, howling, emotional mess: just watching the ‘making of’ programme made me cry. I had heard Michael Morpurgo on the radio the day before talking about the little boy who inspired the book, and had cried, then got completely choked up when I tried to tell Mr. Bsag about it (he hadn’t heard the programme). On the TV programme, they showed a scene where Joey — the horse — gets caught in barbed wire, and had to turn away I found it so upsetting.

I don’t cry very often, but there are certain things (often silly things) which are real triggers for me, and a theatre production involving horses, the First World War, and someone losing and then being reunited with a beloved friend is more or less a perfect storm of emotional triggers for me. I can sit there with tears running down my face, thinking “Oh, get a grip woman — it’s just puppets for goodness sake!”, but still not be able to stop crying.

If you’re made of sterner stuff than me, it looks like a great play to see, and I understand there’s a film coming soon too, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I probably won’t be able to watch that either…