I had never seen War Horse before, but it’s always been on my mental list of shows to see. It opened twelve years ago, when I was doing a degree in theatre studies, so naturally I was interested. Somehow though, there always seemed to be something newer to watch, something that had a limited run, that I wouldn’t get to see again. War Horse seemed like it was such a smash hit it would be playing forever. But not so! War Horse closed in the West End in 2016, and transferred to Broadway. It’s no longer a Saturday day trip away, but it is touring the UK, and on in Oxford until the 7th of September.
If, like me, this is a show you’ve been meaning to see, please don’t put it off. It really is as good as everyone says.
The story and set are alike in being simple but wildly effective. War Horse tells the story of a young boy whose father buys a horse for a foolish sum, and his efforts to keep the animal he has bonded with. This is told through simple, short scenes, folk song, minimal staging (one bold rip across the top of the stage with hand drawn projections is about the size of it) and some incredible puppets.
The puppetry, by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, is so captivating and transformative that there were times I found myself marvelling at how well behaved the horses were being on stage before remembering that they aren’t real. And yet they are as real as any other character of course - Joey the horse is the absolute star of the show, with every tail flick and ear turn lovingly and dazzlingly brought to life.
Apart from Joey, it feels unfair to single out any particular actors for praise - this was a beautifully choreographed ensemble piece. While the central relationship between a boy and his horse forms the backbone of the story, there are so many other windows into tragedies, both big and small - the two brothers who won’t stop arguing, the soldier who misses his daughter, the endless horrors of war and the flashes of kindness that break through even in the worst of circumstances. Through telling the story of an animal, War Horse presents to us the very essence of our own humanity.
This all combines to a truly mesmerising show, as visually stunning as it is emotionally transporting. This show has a lot of hype around it, and it lives up to it beautifully. A lush and magical treat.