The Lowry Theatre
Written by Michael Morpurgo
Adapted for Stage by Nick Stafford
Directed by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris
A National Theatre production
Warhorse had it’s regional première at The Lowry in 2013 and returns for the third time, fittingly as the centenary of the end of WW1 approaches. The book by Michael Morpurgo was adapted at The National Theatre in 2007 and has been hugely successful ever since with worldwide audiences of over 7 million. It is a extraordinary show in terms of scale and ambition with a use of puppetry by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company that is breathtakingly effective. It takes the audience on a journey from sleepy pre-war Devon countryside to the horrors and brutality of the battlefields of France. It is a poignant tribute not only to all that wasted youth and unfulfilled potential but to the animals who suffered and were slaughtered in appalling numbers.
This is a huge production relying on the puppetry effects merging with a large cast in a believable way. There are moments with the birds early on that don’t seem as effective as perhaps intended but otherwise it all works incredibly well. Moments like the puppeteers reverently stepping away from Topthorn perfectly convey the loss of the heart and soul of this proud animal. Similarly the sudden breaking of the colt to make way for the fully fledged Joey is spectacular. This is clearly a team effort with the whole cast giving their all to a very special theatrical experience.
The design work on Warhorse is astounding in its apparent simplicity. Rae Smith’s set is a bare stage using occasional props but to stunning effect. Doors appear in the dark backdrop or poles create market day or become paddock fences. Barbed wire draped at the front of the stage creates a visceral horror that is unforgettable. The brilliance of the vast overhead projection screen is incredibly special. As the performance opens it looks like a slash of white cloud across the Devon countryside but is of course a torn fragment of parchment from a soldiers sketchbook. The backdrop of images of country villages, callow youths on horseback and soldiers’ arrival in France and the battlefields of The Somme are sketched out across the screen in black and white drawings. The only splash of colour is when the screen bleeds red for a lost comrade and poignantly becomes the blossoms of poppies on The Somme.
The lighting by Paule Constable is beautifully done creating golden summer days and crisp winters before shifting into the bleak battlefields where soldiers emerge from the gloom or are blinded by the white flashes of explosions or the yellowing haze of gas attacks. The lighting has the effect of breaking the fourth wall by making the audience experience the battlefield horrors as though they are there too. The impact of the sound and visuals have created a powerfully immersive experience that lingers after the show has ended.
My grandfather was a country boy like Alfred and fought throughout the war. He was to be the sole survivor of his platoon at The Somme and initially was listed as dead. He was seriously injured, placed on a cart of dead bodies dragged back through the mud and debris by a horse such as Joey. He started to regain consciousness as the bodies of his friends were lifted off for burial. He was one of the lucky ones who came home.
This is an incredibly moving experience especially as the young soldiers go over the top and are cut down so brutally. The horrors of horses ridden into barbed wire with no escape or dragging ambulance carts or tanks through the treacherous mud. Warhorse is a potent reminder of why WW1 is rightly still remembered as a testament to the senseless cruelty of war.
13th – 30th June
Images by Brinkhoff & M Âgenburg