There has been much reflection this year on the massive loss of human life on the battlefields of France a century ago.
But alongside the men crawling through mud and tangled in wire were a million horses, sent to France between 1914 and 1918. Barely 60,000 returned.
Thousands of horses used in the First World War were killed or wounded by gunfire, or poison gas, maimed by blades, or starved when food ran low. Of those that survived, most ended up in French butchers’ shops.
In War Horse we are offered a soul-stirring glimpse of a horse’s experience of war. The powerful National Theatre production blends remarkable puppetry with haunting folk songs and striking artwork, following a farm horse’s journey from a sunkissed Devon paddock to the brutal battlefields of northern France.
Caught in enemy crossfire, Joey ends up serving on both sides, charging with the British then used by German cavalry to pull ambulances and weaponry. Lying about his age, farm boy Albert is also caught up in the bloodshed, trying desperately to find his beloved horse.
Nick Stafford’s memorable adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel blends the horror and chaos of warfare with the simplicity of a children’s story about a boy and his horse.
The terrific Handspring Puppet Company brings Joey and other horses beautifully to life, as snorting, galloping, loving and tormented animals, responding to noises around them with a flick of the ear or a jerk of the head as a real horse would.
We soon see Joey as a real horse, so when he’s caught in barbed wire in No Man’s Land it’s almost unbearable to watch.
The action is set to a large projection of sketches by designer Rae Smith, drawing on various war art influences, morphing from a rural English landscape to a sky filled with fire.
A strong cast is headed by Lee Armstrong, Peter Ash, James Alper, Nisa Cole, Karen Henthorn and David Fleeshman.
A beautifully staged production, all the more poignant in this centenary year.
Runs until June 14.