The National Theatre’s acclaimed production of War Horse spends Christmas at New Theatre, Oxford, offering families an alternative to the festive pantomimes.
The tour of War Horse, which started in September and goes through to next year, coincides with the centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War.
The production, adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s remarkable story of courage, loyalty and friendship, about a young boy called Albert and his horse Joey, set against the backdrop of the First World War, is the most successful play in the National Theatre’s history.
It features ground breaking puppetry work by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company which brings breathing, galloping horses to life on stage.
Albert (played by Thomas Dennis in the tour) and his beloved horse, Joey, live on a farm in the British countryside. At the outbreak of war, Albert and Joey are forcibly parted when Albert’s father sells the horse to the British cavalry. Against the backdrop of the Great War, Joey begins an odyssey full of danger, joy and sorrow, and he transforms everyone he meets along the way. Meanwhile Albert, unable to forget his equine friend, searches the battlefields of France to find Joey and bring him home.
Mr Morpurgo was inspired to write War Horse after talking to old soldiers from the First World War. He said: “The more I heard, the more I felt that any story I might want to write about this war had to be written not from a British perspective, not even from a French or German or Belgian one. It had to be the story of the suffering and grieving on all sides, military and civilian too. I needed to tell a story that reflected the universal pity of war.”
Mr Murpurgo admits that his book, although well liked, was not initially a best seller. It was its transformation by the National Theatre into a stunning stage production, that saw the story reach so many people and garner awards by the dozen.
He says he often goes to Ypres to research his stories, and when there he visits the war cemeteries. He said: “I am struck always by how many British people are there, Australians too, and Canadians, and New Zealanders, but how very few Germans are there. Yet their fathers and sons, their brothers and uncles, who left their homes a hundred years ago died in even greater numbers than ours. Their boys went to war for much the same reasons ours did, patriotism, pride, for adventure, because they were told to. Their deaths were as terrible, the sense of loss at home just as grievous. Yet it would seem that even now, the shadow of the Hitler War does not allow them to remember as we do, those who died in the First World War.”
He said he hoped that the play of War Horse, and the book and film, could play a small part in a new beginning of reconciliation and understanding.
Thomas Dennis, who plays Albert, embarked on a research trip across Northern France and the Western Front, following in the footsteps of Joey and Albert. He said: “I believe this show to be a commemoration of all the men, women and horses that gave their lives in the Great War, so to see the landscapes and read the names on the gravestones, allows me to connect deeply to the subject matter of the piece. “
War Horse is at New Theatre, Oxford from Wednesday December 13 - Saturday January 6. Tickets cost from £21.40, discounts available. Box office 0844 871 3020 or www.atgtickets.com/oxford