Morpurgo’s Warhorse Takes to the Stage

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Michael Morpurgo: Warhorse (adapted by Nick Strafford): National Theatre production on tour in association with Handspring Puppet Company, Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 18.6.2014. (PCG)

Warhorse (c) National Theater
Warhorse (c) National Theater

Acting cast: Matt Addis, James Alper, Lee Armstrong, Peter Ash, Emily Aston, Nisa Cole, David Fleeshman, Adam Foster, Bob Fox, Jason Furnival, Karl Haynes, Karen Henthorn, Steven Hillman, Rebecca Killick, Helen McFarlane, Sean McKenzie, Alex Moran, Joseph Richardson, Paul Simpson, Gavin Swift, Simon Truby and Martin Wenner

Definitions in the realm of the lyric theatre are always vague and next to impossible to achieve. Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (when given with Grieg’s incidental music at its full length) is invariably described as a play; Mozart’s Magic Flute (when given with Schikaneder’s comic dialogue uncut) is equally unequivocally called an opera. Yet in terms of the proportion of dialogue to music, the difference between the two is not very great; and the terminology, and the fact that one work is always credited to Ibsen and the other to Mozart, is a matter of convenience only. (Gilbert and Sullivan were probably the first to achieve public parity, and their precedent has not been widely followed outside the world of the American musical). These initial thoughts are prompted by the nature of Warhorse, skilfully adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s original book told from the point of view of the horse itself.

Morpurgo’s international reputation was sealed by the Steven Spielberg film of Warhorse, but for many years before that the author (one should avoid the frequently pejoratively applied term “children’s author”) had shown a keen interest in the combination of stage action with live music. Two years ago I reviewed a CD release of his The Mozart Experience, a ‘sound play’ on the subject of the Holocaust with an accompaniment written for no less an august body than the London Symphony Orchestra. This may possibly be regarded as following in a family tradition; Morpurgo’s maternal grandfather the Belgian poet Emile Cammaerts had collaborated with Elgar on a couple of similar works combining text and music during the First World War itself.

Warhorse in its original stage manifestation at the National Theatre also featured live music as part of the overall experience, but in April of this year the management decided to dispense with the services of the five musicians involved on the grounds that their contributions only constituted one-tenth of the total running time. The decision had already been taken at this time to use recorded music in the touring production as seen here, and in a production currently on stage in Berlin. But the principle of interplay between musicians and actors is more than just a matter of what the National Theatre described as “the production’s best artistic interests…essentially when the audience can see the musicians playing live in view” – where the use of recording is also a question of the give-and-take between the constituent parts of the production, and robs the musical element of a ‘live response’ to what is going on on the stage. In a subsequent court case involving the breach of musicians’ contracts Nick Starr, the executive director of the National Theatre, stated that the play was “better off without them.” If this is true (and I am sceptical about such a claim) the fault lies more with the lack of close liaison on stage rather than with the idea of combining stage action with live music, which has a real validity in its own right. Mind you, the musicians did not help their artistic case by their contention in court that they could easily be re-integrated into the production “after limited rehearsals.” The proper treatment of such a project demands the utmost degree of co-ordination.

Be that as it may, the musical element in Warhorse remains substantial; but nonetheless this is decidedly not a ‘musical’ but a stage performance in which incidental music plays a vital part. The live onstage musical elements in this touring production remain: the recurrent refrains accompanied by accordion (excellent played and sung by Bob Fox) form an essential skeleton separating and commenting on the various scenes. But the use of recorded music as a backdrop, as in a feature film, worked well and rang the changes from imitations of George Butterworth (the British composer killed on the Somme in 1916) to military marches and patriotic songs, often employed with ironic intent. Terry Davies was credited as music director for this touring production, although Adrian Sutton was responsible for the London version and John Tams is credited as “songmaker”.

Indeed this was one of those evenings in the theatre where nearly everything went right to produce an overwhelming experience. One might complain about some unclear diction, especially in the second part where imitations of French and German accents brought an unwelcome echo of the old British television sitcom ’Allo ’allo, or the flying puppetry birds which (unlike the horses) failed to carry a sense of verisimilitude; but these complaints would amount to little more than nitpicking. The horses in particular enchanted and terrified by turns. It might be said that the soul of any animal can be seen its eyes; these skeletal horses had no eyes, but their distinct personalities were nevertheless conveyed through every movement of their ears and heads, and the horror when Joey, the war horse of the title, was caught up in barbed wire was a heart-stopping moment in the extreme. I do not think there was a dry eye in the house at that second. The production and design team (original designs by Rae Smith) deserve all the plaudits that one can bestow.

The acting cast almost had to take second place to the horses, but they managed to keep their end up. In particular Peter Ash as Billy conveyed a high sense of involvement throughout, both in the pastoral opening scenes and then in the superbly overwhelming depictions of the horrors of the Western Front. The sheer pathos of his attempts to keep Joey out of the clutches of his grasping uncle, and the knowledge of what much greater horrors were to come for them both, had a real sense of tragic poignancy. The remainder of the cast, many of them playing multiple roles, were very much also-rans without being given much chance to establish distinct characters; but Karen Henthorn contributed a notable cameo performance as Billy’s mother.

I overheard someone during the interval ask their companion if they were “enjoying the show”. I am not sure that enjoyment was the right word. The work is by turns cathartic, emotional, humorous and thought-provoking. The programme included an essay by Max Hastings which gave us the chilling information that many of the horses which survived the horrors of the Western Front ended up as meat for the dinner table. Potential diners would not have got much calorific nourishment out of these skeletal puppets, but there was spiritual uplift – and indeed nourishment – to spare in this marvellous production.

The presentation is currently more than halfway through its UK tour, but it will be repeated in Salford (at the Lowry Theatre), Stoke (Regent Theatre) and Bristol (Hippodrome) as well as further performances in Cardiff. Nobody in any of those locations should miss the opportunity to see it. Be prepared for a cathartic and harrowing experience as well as an uplifting one.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

1 thought on “Morpurgo’s <i>Warhorse</i> Takes to the Stage”

  1. This is a great piece of theatre. Trying to reach a high goal: Bringing many people back to ambitious theatre, where since a long time easy to listen musicals with commercial reasons rules the market. With that is mind, its a great ‘show’.


Leave a Comment