Way back last summer I managed to get hold of tickets for the National Theatre production of War Horse, touring the UK and Ireland and due to visit Edinburgh at the beginning of this year.
And last weekend we finally got to use those tickets.
It was absolutely worth the wait.
To anyone who hasn’t yet been lucky enough to see War Horse on stage I’d say, find out if its tour takes it anywhere near you and if so then go and see it if you possibly can. It is a truly amazing experience.
Unlike the Spielberg film version of Michael Morpurgo’s book, which I understand portrays a very different although no less powerful reality, the horses depicted on stage are quite obviously puppets.
They are clearly made from bamboo and wood, metal and cloth.
And, apart from matching the colour of their simple costumes, no attempt is made to hide the three puppeteers manipulating the chestnut (or black) almost skeletal horse-shaped shell around them.
And yet, within mere moments of their first appearance on stage, we found ourselves completely focussed on the horse. On Joey. And there seemed no doubt, watching every micro movement, every twitch, every swish of the tail, every restless sidestep, that we were somehow watching the actions of a real horse. And a most beautiful one at that.
It really is a sort of magic.
Of course Joey was born in Devon. More specifically, he was born in Iddesleigh, the tiny village which has been the focus of our family’s life for the last forty six years.
Michael conceived his story there some thirty odd years ago, whilst sitting in the Duke of York pub chatting to local men of the village about the impact the two world wars had on such a close community and of the direct role many of them had played in it all.
And they talked too of the horses, taken from the quiet of the English countryside to the noise and horror of France during the Great War, and left there, mostly. Millions of them killed either by enemy fire, or by barbed wire, or at the end of the war destroyed to save transporting them all home again.
And out of those conversations, and of Michael’s vivid imaginings, emerged the story of Joey and of War Horse.
Michael still lives in the village, when he’s not dashing around the world being interviewed about his books, and last September he arranged for Joey to come back home.
Sadly we couldn’t be there to meet him, but my mother, cousin and brother (plus crowds of people from all around) were. And fortunately they took some fantastic photos.
Miraculously it was a gorgeously sunny autumn day.
Joey and his ‘handlers’ trotted through the village, which had been decorated with bunting in their honour, meeting the crowds and patiently waiting while hundreds of photos were taken.
The actor playing Albert Narracott was there, as was the now elderly and frail Albert Weeks after whom the character had been named.
A film crew from the BBC programme Countryfile appeared, along with several local news reporters. The village has rarely experienced such media attention.
And the puppeteers remained in character throughout, by all accounts casting the same spell on the onlookers as we experienced here last weekend. One reporter was almost embarrassed to find herself petting Joey on the nose, just as you would a real horse. She just couldn’t help but be drawn into the powerful shared illusion.
He really is a staggering beautiful creation.
The puppeteers become the head, the heart and the hind of the horse. That’s how their places within it are described. Somehow they seem to provide the horse with its own heart, its own personality. It is quite incredible, mesmerising even, to watch.
The puppeteers even syncronise their breathing to imitate the breathy snorts and whinnies horses typically make.
They have to learn to think like a horse.
Michael managed to write a beautiful story, from the unique point of view of a horse. In doing so he was able to create a completely nonpartisan account of the horrors of war. He, more than almost any other author I can think of, writes deeply from the heart.
The creation of Joey, and the other horses and indeed all the actors we watched on stage last weekend, seemed to me to be about the best possible depiction of that heartfelt writing that I could imagine.
If you see it… and you should… be prepared to shed a tear or two. It is almost impossible not to be moved by what you see. And given the nature of the war being depicted, that is, I suppose, as it should be.
[Thanks to my cousin Tony for the use of his brilliant photos of Joey]