JOYCE MCMILLAN on WAR HORSE at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 23.1.14
5 stars *****
IF YOU TOOK A DEEP breath, and stood a long way back from the mighty drama and spectacle of the National Theatre of Great Britain’s War Horse – at the Festival Theatre until 15 February – then you might, for a moment or two, raise questions about its message and meaning. It’s a passionate reiteration – one among thousands – of England’s great, endless mourning for its lost rural past, an imagined innocence finally blown to pieces in the mud and blood of Flanders. And then there’s something deeper, perhaps; a story for our time about how human and animal well-being are somehow bound together, and can never be fully separated.
You won’t want to stand back, however, nor will you be able to. For what directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris have made of Michael Morpurgo’s story – together with the Handspring Puppet Company, and perhaps the most powerful, subtle and beautiful stage animals ever seen – is a drama of peace and war so vast in its reach, so gripping in its dramatic structure, and so breathtaking in its physical evocation of the pure horror of the western front, that it’s literally impossible to look away from the stage, through two hours and twenty minutes of heart-shaking theatre. Every element of the art-form comes together in a flash of brilliance to tell the story of young Albert Narracott and his horse Joey, a beautiful hunter sent off to the front in 1914 – from the lighting, the sound, and the mighty horses themselves, to the music, great surging English folk songs magnificently sung by the company, with Song Man Tom Fox. And when one of the lead horses finally collapses in death, there’s a second of utter hush, while we see the three puppeters rise out of the body, and back away like a departing soul; in one of many moments of pure theatrical greatness, in this wholly unforgettable show.