War Horse, like most London theatre, has spectacle as its main attraction – but it’s a much bolder spectacle that the usual West End offerings.
For once, I’m not going to give a critical run-through of War Horse – it’s already got overwhelming praise from, well, pretty much everybody who’s ever seen it, so I doubt my verdict will make any difference one way or the other. Instead, I’m going to ask a tougher question: does this justify the large public subsidy that the Royal National Theatre gets? Because although the Sunderland Empire calls itself “The West End of the North East”, the National isn’t a West End Theatre, and it’s not just because of its location – the difference is that all the West End Theatres are entirely commercially self-funding. The National justifies its public funding on the grounds that it can take risks. That’s quite an easy claim to make – it’s not hard to be more adventurous than the formulaic shows that make up much of the West End – but you also to show something for it. Yes, you can have the odd dud every now and then, the gambles that didn’t work out, but you need to prove yourself with the risks that paid off. Step forward Exhibit A, War Horse.
When you’re the flagship show of the flagship venture of subsidised theatre, there’s two things you need to prove yourself. Firstly, you need to be popular with the public – there’s no doubt War Horse has achieved this, if the near sell-out at the Sunderland Empire is anything to go by. But the second challenge is harder: you need to offer something extra, over and above what the West End gives us. That, I felt, was where One Man Two Guvnors was weak. What are paying our taxes for? What does the National give us that the self-funding West End doesn’t?
Before I answer that, though, a quick moan about the experience at the Empire. A big problem with big-budget shows is ticket prices, and it’s important to offer cheap seats in the gallery so you don’t price people out completely. At Sunderland, the gallery seems to be very much an afterthought. The view from the gallery isn’t great, and okay, the Empire’s stuck with the building they’ve got, and okay okay, this production did make a good effort to keep the action visible, but the overall experience was poor. The paint is flaking on the walls on the stairway up, and the view is horribly restricted by the masses of railings they insist on erecting. Sure, 1900s theatres weren’t built with 2010s health and safety in mind, but was such obtrusive railings absolutely necessary? Nor does it help that the cheap tickets aren’t nearly so cheap with the ridiculous £4.85 of extra booking fees. Compare this with the Newcastle Theatre Royal, where you get a pretty decent show from their Gallery, and Sunderland’s Gallery feels like an unloved afterthought.
However, enough of that, back to War Horse. This is an adaptation of a Michael Morpurgo children’s novel – yes folks, it’s never too early to start them on tales of suffering, slaughter and misery – adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford and originally directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. It’s about Albert, a farmer’s son, and Joey, a foal bought by his father. Albert works hard to gain Joey’s trust, and even manages to win a foolish bet his father makes to train the horse to plough in a week. Unfortunately for Joey, his strength is notices by officers recruiting for this upcoming scrap that will definitely definitely definitely be over by Christmas, and his father sells him to the army. When the kindly officer who promise to protect Joey is killed, Albert runs away from home and enlists in a desperate search for his beloved horse. With this being a World War One play, it’s pretty harrowing, with bonus harrow points for who’s involved. We’re just about okay with hordes of young men getting massacred in senseless offensives, but when it’s nice little horseys it’s a tragedy. Although it’s fair to say the horses got a pretty raw deal. Once both sides realised riding into enemy machine gun lines wasn’t a great idea, horses switched to being worked to death dragging artillery to the front line.
The story in itself isn’t anything too special. There’s a lot of WW1 stories around, and apart from the involvement of the horses, there’s really not much out of the ordinary. But the attraction is in the spectacle: a large cast, a local musician singing the songs, top-notch choreography and some good use of back projections. Again, that’s still not too special all the time. London theatre is all about spectacle nowadays, and most of what’s done in war horse is little different to what the West End does all the time. But the thing that impressed me was the puppetry of the horses, courtesy of the Handspring Puppet Company. Not so much how well the puppetry was done (it was flawless, but I’d expect nothing less from a production of this scale), but the fact they chose to go with this kind of puppetry at all.
When you think about it, the horse puppets were a very bold decision when this play started off. In order to make the horse movement so realistic, the three puppeteers are visible to the audience; in particular, the one doing the head has to be clearly visible – he is made to look like a herder, even though there is no herder in the play. This is not a problem in fringe theatre, where it has long since been accepted that puppeteers can be visible and made into part of the play – but the National? Expectations are far higher in big-budget London productions – if the story says Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flies, you have to find a way to make a car fly. This gamble could so easily have backfired. Had audiences and critics not accepted this convention that you ignore the puppeteers, this play could have been decried for having ridiculous ten-legged horses on stage. But gamble they did, and now the horse puppet is one of the iconic images of theatre. Good call.
I do wonder whether this play needed to be on the lavish scale it was. It was nice to do it that way, but this comes at the price of higher ticket prices and shows like this being priced out of many folk. But this is a play that vindicates the National’s status as a subsidised theatre. It’s not fair to say that a West End Theatre couldn’t have come up with War Horse, but the fact is they didn’t – it was the National, taking the risks where the commercial theatre fear to tread. Is the balance between funding of the National and regional theatre the right one? That’s a debate for another day. But War Horse is a fine example of what theatre subsidies can achieve. We should not be leaving it up to the commercial theatres alone.