“My subject is war and the pity of war,” wrote Wilfred Owen in the preface to the collection of poems he never lived to see published.
So might also write Michael Morpurgo, who, growing up in the aftermath of the war which followed the war to end all wars, knew well from personal family experience the deep wounds that war inflicts.
His decision however to make his chief protagonist both a combatant but also a neutral observer, neither friend nor foe, Tommy or Hun, was an inspired one. We aren’t asked to choose sides in the story of Joey the War Horse, apart from the side of humanity itself.
It’s true there’s little of that in the brutalised killing fields of Flanders, evoked stunningly on stage by the creative team – not just designer Rae Smith, but the lighting and sound designers too.
Narratively, the moments of light – the small kindnesses, the fast bonds of friendship of both man and beast – stand in sharp relief to war’s mechanical, grey grind, symbolised by the ghost-like horses chained to field guns, or the new iron horses that roar menacingly across the landscape.
And then that all stands in sharper relief still to pre-war Devon, where young farm boy Albert Narracott (Thomas Dennis) forms an deep and unbreakable friendship with the young Joey. As Larkin wrote - never such innocence, never before or since.
If you don’t have a lump in your throat at the sight of boy and foal bonding, you’re made of stony stuff. And if you don’t have that same lump, and moisture leaking from the corners of your eyes in the closing moments, then modern life really has desensitised you.
Of course the magic of the award-laden War Horse is in the way the puppets, cane and fabric as they are, come so completely to life in the hands of their head, heart and hind puppeteers that you invest completely in their realness. From the shiver down the flanks to the flick of an ear, the snorting breath to the bridle-rattling shake of a head, we accept they are a living, breathing creature.
War Horse was a triumph at the National, in the West End and on Broadway. And it’s a triumph on this tour too – a big-hearted, emotionally-charged, sobering tale of triumph over adversity, of friendship and above all, the power of love.
Read more on how Michael Morpurgo created the War Horse story