A number of years ago I was lucky enough to see the National Theatre production of War Horse when it was playing in London. The show is an adaptation of the popular Michael Morpurgo children’s novel written in 1982.
It tells the story of the First World War through the eyes of a horse, Joey, who is sold to a yeomanry cavalry division, shipped off to France and ends up serving on the front for both the British and then, after being captured, the German side. He ends up injured and wandering in no-man’s land.
Joey is pursued by his young master, Albert, who enlists at the age of 16 with the sole purpose of finding his horse amid the carnage of war with little chance of being reunited.
Like most people who booked to see the performance when it first came out I wasn’t sure how likely I was to enjoy a play containing life size equine puppets. I had images of an upmarket Punch and Judy show but thankfully this vision could not have been further from the truth.
Each puppet had been thoughtfully created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, with a huge degree of authenticity cleverly defining their individual characteristics.
At first sight they were hardly picturesque, a complex array of wooden framework. But the cane, leather and Tyvek - which was used for the manes and tails - held an extraordinary mobility which captured every essence of emotion. Within minutes I was so involved in the powerful relationships and deep felt storyline all thoughts of seaside puppetry swiftly banished.
I left the theatre feeling emotionally charged and vowed to take my son, who was only four-years-old at the time, to see this uniquely moving performance as soon as he was old enough. He has since grown to love Morpurgo’s books and has read most of them time and again.
The National Theatre production of War Horse was so successful it ran for eight years in London, toured 11 countries and was seen by seven million people worldwide including The Queen who is reported to be a fan. It is the most successful play ever mounted by the Royal National Theatre in London.
The play was later turned in to a weepy Spielberg movie which I vowed never to see, preferring to remember the brilliance of the British theatre production. Sadly I never got the chance to take my son, now 10, before the show closed earlier this year.
Last week one of the original eight puppet sets made for the play was sold by Bonhams at a charity auction. War Horse Joey sold for £35,000 and was reportedly purchased by a large US museum. Topthorne, a fellow equine character made £8,500, the Joey foal raised £8,000 and the wonderfully entertaining goose £5,000. In total £68,000 was raised for the Handspring Trust, a charity for young people in South Africa which helps to “inspire creativity, commitment and innovation towards new puppet theatre arts”.
The Joey foal puppet was bought by Graham and Rose Ward who own the War Horse Valley Country Park in Iddesleigh, one of the settings for the story.
The working farm is a public attraction and visited by more than 1,000 children a year through Morpurgo’s charity, Farms for City Children, which gives young people from urban areas an experience of rural life.
A set is also held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I was pleased to read the remaining original puppets are being kept for an upcoming War Horse UK tour which starts in September next year. The National Theatre has announced the play will visit seven UK venues into 2018 so it’s a chance Felix and I won’t be missing this time around.