War Horse: they had no choice

War Horse: they had no choice

War-Horse 1

While we were in London we went to see the National Theatre’s hugely successful production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse.  Beforehand I’d felt a little unsure about what to expect: would it be a little too saccharine and over-sentimental?  But any reservations I had were swept away within minutes: this straightforward story of the love and loyalty of a boy for his horse in the First World War grips from the start with its mesmerising staging and astonishing puppetry.  It’s no wonder it has been an international success, running in the West End since 2007.

Michael Billington pinpointed the factors that explain its success in a review for the Guardian in 2011:

First and foremost, it’s the spectacle. Audiences still gasp at the ingenuity of the Handspring Puppet Company who give the horses, through their bendy, bamboo frames, an articulated, individual life. It’s a truism but there comes a point when we forget the horses are manually operated and imagine them, in the words of the Chorus from Henry V, ‘printing their proud hooves in the receiving earth’. But equally remarkable is the moment when a simulated first-world-war tank, signalling the cavalry’s demise, rolls ominously towards the audience.

Technical skill alone, however, doesn’t explain War Horse‘s wow-factor. I suspect it’s also to do with the way it taps into folk memories of the First World War. The show doesn’t have the pungent mix of satire and sentiment that characterised Theatre Workshop’s dazzling Oh! What A Lovely War. Nor does it possess the vivid realism of Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong, with its portrait of the subterranean lives of sappers. But we are still haunted by the collective horror and mass sacrifice of the ‘great war’.

It all adds up to a terrific evening’s theatre: an uplifting tale, superb acting, stirring music, dramatic visuals – and, not least, the incredible  technical achievements of the puppet designers and the puppeteers.

The phenomenal success of the National Theatre production owes everything to its collaboration with the South African Handspring Puppet Company.  The horse puppets are life-size, made of cable, leather and steel, brought alive with the movements and expert choreography of their handlers.  Every twitch of an ear or shudder of mane makes you believe the animals are real, helping to emphasise Morpurgo’s vision of the historic bond between human and horse.

War Horse 4

War Horse

In the original book, Morpurgo elected, like Anna Sewell in Black Beauty, to tell the story of Joey the horse from  the horse’s point of view, making the horse a witness to the brutality of the first World War. Joey is conscripted, leaving behind life on a Devon farm for service with British forces in France.  During a cavalry against machine guns, his rider is shot and killed and Joey is captured by German troops. Meanwhile, Albert, his young owner and trainer, enlists in the army by lying about his age and pursues his beloved horse.

The stage version inevitably abandons the horse’s-eye-view of Morpurgo’s novel to build the narrative around Albert and his pursuit of his across the French battlefields of the 1914-18 war. It has to be said that Albert’s character is never really developed. And though, like Oh! What a Lovely War, the play makes good use of contemporary folk song and war ballads to counterpoint the devastation of war, this is not a show which challenges the war aims and military leadership in the overt manner of Joan Littlewood’s ground-breaking production.

War Horse is in actual fact a well-oiled machine in which all the constituent elements work to perfection: the acting, stage design and back-projected video, the lighting, the music; and above all the extraordinary horses and cheeky goose brought vividly to life by Handspring Puppet Company.

War Horse horse meets tank

War Horse: horse meets tank

I was interested in how Michael Morpurgo came to write War Horse.  I learnt from the National Theatre website  that his mother was Belgian:

My mother often wept when she talked about the war. On the mantelpiece was a photo of my Uncle Pieter, who was shot down in 1941, two years before I was born. He looked back at me when I looked at him, and I knew he wanted to say something but couldn’t. I used to talk to him sometimes, I remember. I wanted to get to know him.

A friend of the family used to come to tea sometimes. My mother always told me I must not stare at him, but I always did. I could not help myself. His face and hands were horribly scarred. I knew he had been shot down in the war and suffered dreadful burns. Here’s what war did. It burned flesh. It killed my uncle. It made my mother weep. So I grew up with the damage of war all around me. I learned that buildings you can put up again, but lives are wrecked forever.

As a schoolboy I read the great poets of the First World War – Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy. I read Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I saw the film. I went to see Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War. Britten’s great War Requiem, the pictures of Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer left an indelible impression on me.

In other interviews he has spoken of one particular meeting – with a man in his local pub – that sparked the idea for the book:

It was in my village, The Duke of York, in Iddesleigh in Devon. He was in his eighties and I knew he’d been to the First World War as a young man. For no good reason I happened to ask him what regiment he’d been in. ‘Devon ­Yeomanry’, he said, ‘I was there with ‘orses.’ He told me things beside the fire in the pub that day that you don’t read in poems or books, that you didn’t see in films. It was as if he was taking me by the hand and showing me, ­passing it on; about living with fear and horror, about how the only person he could talk to was his horse, when he was feeding him at night, alone.  He talked on for hours about the horse he’d loved and left behind at the end of the war, how the old horse had been sold off to the French butchers for meat.

Then some weeks later I came across a picture by one FW Reed, painted in 1917, of British cavalry horses in the First World War charging up a hill towards the German positions, towards the wire. Some were already entangled in it. Like the private in the old song, they were ‘hanging on the old barbed wire’. I telephoned the Imperial War Museum and asked if they knew how many horses had been killed in the First World War. A million or more, they told me, and that was just in the British army; probably eight million horses died on all sides. With the real possibility now growing in my head that I might write a story about the First World War, not from one side or the other, but from the perspective of a horse that is used by both armies, so that it could be a story of the universal suffering of that war, or any war, I began my research.

I determined then and there to tell the story of such a horse. But how to tell it? I had to find a way that didn’t take sides. So I conceived the notion I might write the story of the First World War as seen through a horse’s eye, a horse that would be reared on a Devon farm, by the forebears of the village people I knew, a horse that is sold off the farm to go to the front as a British cavalry horse, is captured by the Germans and used to to pull ambulances and guns, winters on a French farm. It would be the horse’s eye view of the universal suffering of that dreadful war in which 10 million men died, and unknown millions of horses.

Beyond the specific incidents which provided the inspiration for the book, Morpurgo has spoken (again on the National Theatre website) about the more general views about 1914-18 – and war in general – which impelled him to write:

The First World War, I think, is the great metaphor for all wars because in a way, it was the most useless of all wars. This was absolutely a struggle between the great European powers, slicing up the world between them and deciding who should have the biggest slice of the cake. I think many people, many historians, look at the First World War and think, Well that was a waste, a complete waste of life. After that war, there was this short intermission of 20-odd years and then there was this Second World War, which, to my way of thinking, was a complete result of the First World War. And we know what damage that has done and continues to do worldwide.

It was all begun by this great conflagration of western powers unable to negotiate their way without humiliating one another. What seems to happen time and time again is that we fight away, we humiliate one another and we expect there to be peace. But it doesn’t work that way and we all should know this by now. Suddenly this book about the First World War becomes much more urgent and relevant because of the suffering that we all know is going on around us.

Column on the march, August 1914

A column of cavalry on the march, August 1914

After the show, I wanted to know more about the extent to which horses were used in the Great War. That figure of more than eight million seems to be the widely accepted estimate for the number of horses that died on all sides during the First World War. Although Joey in War Horse is a cavalry mount, horses served in the conflict in many different ways. On all sides – British, Australian, French, German and American – memoirs, letters, photographs and sketches reveal just how important horses really were.  The military authorities regarded horses as indispensable – they hauled guns and equipment through deep mud and over rough terrain more effectively than motor vehicles; they were used for reconnaissance and for carrying messengers, as well as pulling artillery, ambulances, and supply wagons. Memoirs and soldiers’ letters also reveal that the  presence of horses often increased morale among the soldiers at the front.

Pack horses carrying ammunition in Flanders, from 'The Horse and the War' by Captain Lionel Edwards, published by Country Life in 1918.

Pack horses carrying ammunition in Flanders, from ‘The Horse and the War’ published in 1918

How typical was Joey?  Very. Over the course of the war, the British government impressed half a million privately owned horses into the army – 17% of the country’s equine population. In France in the month of August 1914 alone, 730,000 horses were requisitioned – which means that nearly a quarter of the French horse population disappeared from the home front in fewer than 30 days.

In France and Belgium, the war was dominated by the artillery, infantry and engineers and it was these forces that employed the most horses and mules for draught work. Motor transport was important but did not supplant true horse-power. Heavy horses pulled the largest guns and the heaviest wagons. Lighter horses and mules kept the field artillery mobile, hauling ammunition, rations and equipment into the front line and supporting the vast infrastructure of camps and depots of the rear areas.

The enormous contribution that horses made to the war effort on all sides is summarised in this passage from The Beauty and the Sorrow,Peter Englund’s brilliant history of the war compiled from the diaries and letters of twenty unknown individuals on both sides of the conflict:

Weaponry has undergone great change over the past fifty years, becoming ever more deadly, but the means of transport have hardly changed at all.  This is one of the main reasons that the war so often stalls and becomes static.  Once the trains have reached their termini the further progress of the armies relies on exactly what it relied on in Caesar’s or Napoleon’s day – the muscles in a man’s legs or in a horse’s back. But these ever more complex organisations demand more and more equipment, and the weapons, with their increasingly rapid rate of fire, demand more and more ammunition.

A German army corps needed only 457 wagons for its transport in 1871 whereas in 1914 it needed no fewer than 1,168 – an increase of over 250 per cent.  All these extra wagons had to be pulled by horses, and the extra horses needed fodder, which also needed to be transported.  Weight for weight, a horse eats ten times as much as a man, which in turn demands more wagons and more horses to pull them, and so on. A contemporary head-count suggests that there was one horse for every three men.  About eight million horses died in the war, which means the horse population suffered proportionately greater losses than the human one.

Men at the Western Front, c 1916

Men on the Western Front with horses, c 1916

Some men enlisted to follow their horses to war, as Albert does in War Horse,  while others simply expressed a desire for equine companionship during the trials of war.  Sir John Moore, Director of the British veterinary services in France during the war, believed that soldiers’ relationships to horses provided ‘evidence of a pleasanter side of the picture and one which acts as a corrective and is an antithesis to baser impulses of men and nations’, while AW Curie, in a 1932 book on the subject of horses in the war wrote:

Among the few bright things of the soldier’s life none touched him more deeply than the mutual attachment of man and horse. No one who has ever had to do with soldiers and with horses can fail to acknowledge how much the horse helped to keep up the morale of the man. The very work of tending a horse was a distraction which relieved the trooper or the gunner from the otherwise unrelenting tension of warfare. The few minutes of pleasant companionship made him the more ready for the battle of a new day.

On the Western Front, the traditional cavalry charge was stopped in its tracks by two technological advances – barbed wire and the machine gun. Then, two and a half months after the Somme, a new weapon emerged. It was mobile, it could deflect machine gun bullets and it could crush barbed wire. The horse had finally been replaced by the tank.

Treating a wounded horse

Treating a wounded horse

Erich Maria Remarque expressed the view that ‘it is the vilest baseness to use horses in war’ (a sentiment echoed by Robert Graves in his war memoir Good-Bye to All That where he wrote, ‘The number of dead horses and mules shocked me; human corpses were all very well, but it seemed wrong for animals to be dragged into the war like this’).  Watching War Horse, one scene in particular reminded me of this terrible passage in Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front:

The screaming goes on and on. It can’t be men, they couldn’t scream that horribly.

‘Wounded horses,’ says Kat.

I have never heard a horse scream and I can hardly believe it. There is a whole world of pain in that sound, creation itself under torture, a wild and horrifying agony. We go pale. Detering sits up.’Bastards, bastards! For Christ’s sake
shoot them!’

He is a farmer and used to handling horses. It really gets to him. And as if on purpose the firing dies away almost completely. The screams of the animals become that much clearer. You can’t tell where it is coming from any more in that quiet, silver landscape, it is invisible, ghostly, it is everywhere, between the earth and the heavens, and it swells out immeasurably. Detering is going crazy and roars out,’ Shoot them, for Christ’s sake, shoot them!’

‘They’ve got to get the wounded men out first.’ says Kat. We stand up and try to see where they are. If we can actually see the animals, it will be easier to cope with. Meyer has some field glasses with him. We can make out a dark group of orderlies with stretchers, and then some bigger things, black mounds that are moving. Those are the wounded horses. But not all of them. Some gallop off a little way, collapse, and then run on again. The belly of one of the horses has been ripped open and its guts are trailing out. It gets its feet caught up in them and falls, but it gets to its feet again.

Detering raises his rifle and takes aim. Kat knocks the barrel upwards. ‘Are you crazy?’

Detering shudders and throws his gun on to the ground. We sit down and press our hands over our ears. But the terrible crying and groaning and howling still gets through, it penetrates everything. We can all stand a lot, but this brings us out in a cold sweat. You want to get up and run away, anywhere just so as not to hear that screaming any more. And it isn’t men, just horses.

Some more stretchers are moved away from the dark mass. Then a few shots ring out. The big shapes twitch a little and become less prominent. At last! But it isn’t over yet. No one can catch the wounded animals who have bolted in terror, their wide-open mouths filled with all that pain. One of the figures goes down on one knee, a shot – one horse collapses – and then there is another. The last horse supports itself on its forelegs, and moves in a circle like a carousel, turning around in a sitting position with its forelegs stiff – probably its back is broken. The soldier runs across and shoots it down. Slowly, humbly, it sinks to the ground.

We take our hands away from our ears. The screaming h as stopped. Just a long-drawn-out, dying sigh is still there in the air. Then, just like before, there are only the rockets, the singing of the shells, and the stars…

Animals in War memorial

The Animals in War memorial in Hyde Park

Delving into the background to Michael Morpurgo’s tale, I was surprised to discover that in Hyde Park, London there is an Animals in War memorialdesigned by the English sculptor David Backhouse to commemorate the countless animals that have served and died under British military command throughout history. It was unveiled in November 2004.  The main inscription on the memorial reads:

This monument is dedicated to all the animals
that served and died alongside British and allied forces
in wars and campaigns throughout time.

A second, smaller inscription simply reads: ‘They had no choice’.

Trailer for War Horse at the National Theatre

Handspring: the puppetry demonstrated in a TED talk

See also

Port: dreams of leaving

Liz White and Kate O’Flynn in Port

In this dirty old part of the city
Where the sun refuse to shine
People tell me there ain’t no use in trying
Now my girl you’re so young and pretty
And one thing I know is true
You’ll be dead before your time is due

We gotta get out of this place
If its the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
‘Cause girl, there’s a better life
For me and you
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’

I remember the buzz that surrounded Port, the play by Simon Stephens, when it was premièred at the Royal Exchange Manchester in 2002.  The play was set in Stockport, Stephens’ hometown, and had been written during a year he spent as resident dramatist at the Exchange in 1999. I didn’t see it then, but, in London last week, I had the curious experience of having travelled 200 miles to watch a play set in the town nearest to the place where I grew up.

Port spans 13 years in the life of the bright and vivacious Racheal, from the age of 11 when she and her six-year-old brother Billy are abandoned by their mother. The play begins (and ends) in a car parked outside a block of flats in Stockport. In the first scene, set in 1988, Racheal is a restless, inquisitive 11-year-old, sitting with her mum and brother after they have all been locked out by a dad who has gone a bit ‘mental’ (one of the joys of the play is Stephen’s ear for the vernacular, for the street argot of a time when everything weird was ‘mental’).

Stephens’ drama follows Racheal (that’s how her name is spelled in the script by the way) as she comes to terms with the emotional shock of her mother’s disappearance, her father’s isolation and alcoholism, and the death of her grandfather. She is the spirited focus of the play, resilient and fiercely articulate, fighting to overcome the hand that she has been dealt in life. We see her struggle to define herself – in love and in marriage, through work and getting her own place.  She is protective of her younger brother (prone to getting repeatedly run over, and, later, to thieving and subsequent spells of incarceration), but makes mistakes in her own erratic life.  One of the most powerful scenes occurs in a hotel room in Edale on the eve of the millenium, with Racheal left cowering and terrified after a brutal onslaught by the abusive man she has unwisely and unexpectedly married.

Racheal is central to the play, ‘open-eyed, tough, brilliantly optimistic’ in Stephens’ words, but complicated, too, with unlovely aspects born out of neglect and abuse. Above all, though, it is Racheal’s tenacity and resilience (reminiscent, as Michael Billington observed in his review for The Guardian, of Shelagh Delaney’s Jo in A Taste of Honey) that means that you leave the theatre, not downhearted, but with your spirits lifted.

Kate O’Flynn (Racheal Keats) and Mike Noble (Billy Keats)

All of the performances in this production at the National were convincing: Mike Noble as Racheal’s brother Billy, Jack Deam as her fearsome husband, and Calum Callaghan as boyfriend Danny are all worthy of mention.  But it was Kate O’Flynn, mesmerising in the central role of Racheal, who held the whole thing together.  She makes the transition from child to young woman in the early scenes without leaving the stage, discarding one layer of clothing after another like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.  She made the difficult transition from an mercurial 11-year-old to a 24-year-old – hurt, divorced, but still standing – look entirely convincing. O’Flynn’s performance made Racheal likeable and human, someone whose feelings you could understand and empathise with, not out of pity, but because of the sheer strength of her character.

Simon Stephens has written about the origins of Port:

I was given a commission by Manchester’s Royal Exchange. It made sense to write about where I was born.  I returned to the town for weeks at a time, my visits coinciding with the last few months of my dad’s life. The combination of seeing old friends, going to places I’d not been to for years, and watching my dad fight cancer are manifest in the play, in ways I’ve only now come to realise. The places where I’d grown up became my dramatic landscape: the Mersey Way shopping centre and Stockport bus station, drab municipal shells sitting in the shadow of the mighty viaduct. And the kids I’d been to school with and worked with in shit weekend jobs gave me its characters. They were dryly funny, smart and skint. The music we had all listened to came to inform the play’s structure.

Although I began this review by quoting what seem like pertinent lines from the Animals 1965 hit ‘We Gotta Get out of This Place’, the National Theatre production is drenched in the music made in Manchester in the late 1980s.  Stephens explains:

Port is about a place and a time – south Manchester in the late 1980s – that was charged with music. I wanted to dramatise that charge. I wanted the play to have the same effect on an audience that the Fall, New Order, the Smiths, the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses had on me. I tried to build scenes with the same pace and structure as their songs. I tried to evoke the imagery of their lyrics in my dialogue.  […]

So I went back home and interviewed five women who had lived in Stockport all their lives – relatives, old friends, friends of my mum. The oldest was my 85 year-old nana; the youngest my teenage cousin. They told me about their jobs and marriages, their aspirations and frustrations. Many of these stories – from the discovery of a dead sparrow to a disastrous New Year’s Eve in a hotel – made it into the fabric of the play.

The story began to develop: a series of scenes focused on one character, Racheal Keats. We watch her grow up. We watch her deal with a family falling apart and a complicated marriage, with a broken-hearted brother who has criminal proclivities, and with the love of her life. She’s open-eyed, tough, brilliantly optimistic.

Chris (Danny Kelly), Billy (Mike Noble) and Racheal (Kate O’Flynn)

Stephens portrays Racheal’s struggle as a battle between love and hatred for the town where she has grown. She longs for the countryside beyond the town, for different places, better places.  She leaves but returns, a somewhat philosophical 24-year-old who acknowledges her mistakes and the continuing sense of loss she has felt since her mother’s disappearance (ironically, the one character who does escape the place).

In the NT’s programme there’s an extract from Paul Morley’s forthcoming book The North (and almost everything in it).  He grew up in Stockport, too.  He writes of a town where ‘wit and bloody-minded acceptance cauterise hopelessness’, and of the ‘frustration, …. the broken hearts, resolution and ferocious, native candour’ running through Port.Morley continues:

The town carries on, Stoicport, and nothing much changes, except the people, still being born there, spending their time there, making do, making it up as they go along, maybe plotting escape routes. Some are in the posh parts, some are stuck where Stockport itself stays stuck near enough to the happening, still modernising big city, with its own battles a little adrift, desperately looking for tomorrow in a place that often settles for what it’s got, where it is and the miserable weather like there’s no tomorrow. I’d left by 1978, because all major roads and railways lines lead out, towards possible adventure, and Manchester Airport begins where Stockport ends. I turned my back on the place, but took with me the Stockport fighter, the Stockport lip and defiant, non-fey accent, as personified by anti-establishment 1930s tennis champion Fred Perry, born in the centre of the Stockport valley a few hundred yards from where the Mersey begins. I left Stockport, but eventually got to realise, you never completely leave.

In an interview with the Metro, Stephens said, ‘Port is a play that I hope inspires. But theatre is a fundamentally optimistic enterprise and my plays are rooted in a faith in people. That’s what makes me want to write.’  The Metro piece continued:

The only personal history Stephens admits to pilfering is his burning teenage desire, like Racheal, to get out of Stockport, where he grew up. ‘Now I go back and can see the beauty of the place,’ he says. ‘I see what I’ve inherited from it: an intolerance of pretension and an insistence that I do my bloody job, that I work hard. But when I was 14, Stockport took on the mantle of the place to flee.’


If the acting shone, there were difficulties with the staging.  When Port was first staged at the Royal Exchange, it was in an intimate theatre in the round setting that would have suited Stephens’ play better than the Lyttleton’s cavernous stage.  In scenes such as the opening one which takes place in a car outside a block of flats, the largely empty stage seemed to dwarf the actors, and I had difficulty hearing some of the lines in the vastness of the Lyttleton.

See also

The Habit of Art

A disappointing evening at the Lowry, seeing Alan Bennett’s play, The Habit of Art, a theatrically complex piece, structured around an imagined late meeting between Benjamin Britten and WH Auden. Although there were flashes of laugh-out-loud humour, overall we found the play sprawling and rather tedious, with a particularly clunky last scene.

On stage we see a set within a set for a play within a play: in a rehearsal room, watched over by a playwright, observed and explained by a biographer of both Britten and Auden, we see the actors performing the inner play (called Caliban’s Day) on a set whose centrepiece is Auden’s study in the Brewhouse, a cottage in the grounds of Christ Church, Oxford in the early 1970s.

This is a National Theatre touring production, directed by Nicholas Hytner (as was the much better play, The History Boys).  Benjamin Britten, played by Malcolm Sinclair, is struggling with his new opera, Death in Venice, that he fears might be sailing too close to the wind for his Aldeburgh audience with its theme of older man attracted to young boy (14 years old in Mann).  Britten seeks advice from his former collaborator and friend, Auden (Desmond Barrit). During this imagined meeting, their first for twenty-five years, they are observed from the wings, and interrupted by, amongst others, their future biographer (Humphrey Carpenter), the playwright and a rent boy hired by Auden.

The play promises to deal with many questions – being an artist, growing old, the ethics of biography, coming to terms with your homosexuality in a judgemental society, and the overlooked ‘Caliban’ ignored in accounts of great artists’ lives. But it doesn’t really work – the ‘Caliban’ idea seems particularly tacked on and undeveloped, while scenes in which Auden’s furniture – and even the lines on his fissured face – talk are, frankly, risible, even within the framing device.

It’s almost as if, having decided that his play has too many problems to solve, Bennett erected protective scaffolding around it by showing his initial playscript being rehearsed and commented upon.  Thus, any problems that the play has become opportunities for comedy; clunky lines, clumsy scenes or devices that don’t come off, can be passed off as ridiculous. Bennett seems to have admitted as much in an article in the London Review of Books.

The second act has the best scene, in which Britten and Auden discuss their varying approaches to their creative work. But even here, the issue ultimately turns upon the less universal and more inward-looking question of how they each deal with being gay, both in creating their art and in their personal lives.  The play closes with a deeply unsatisfying and clumsy final scene which suddenly brings the previously undeveloped character of Stuart the rent-boy, the ‘Caliban’ figure, centre stage in what Bennett has called a plea for recognition and acknowledgement of the outsider, the uninvited guest.