After four years, the adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book is still going strong, and providing the National Theatre with vital income. But why do people love it so much?
By Michael Billington
In racing parlance, War Horse is a “stayer”. It’s been running in London for four years, is still enjoying a profitable outing on the notoriously tricky Broadway course and, according to the National Theatre, is earning enough (£3m a year in the West End alone) to make up for the company’s shortfall in subsidy. Just as income from Les Mis helped to keep the RSC afloat in the 1980s, so War Horse enables the NT to balance its books in the years of George Osborne’s austerity.
But what is it that makes War Horse a popular success? First and foremost, it’s the spectacle. Audiences still gasp at the ingenuity of the Handspring Puppet Company who give the horses, through their bendy, bamboo frames, an articulated, individual life. It’s a truism but there comes a point when we forget the horses are manually operated and imagine them, in the words of the Chorus from Henry V, “printing their proud hooves in the receiving earth”. But equally remarkable is the moment when a simulated first-world-war tank, signalling the cavalry’s demise, rolls ominously towards the audience.
Technical skill alone, however, doesn’t explain War Horse’s wow-factor.