by Michael Morpurgo
The National Theatre have made something of a name for themselves in adapting books for children for the stage. His Dark Materials, Coram Boy and War Horse have all enjoyed successful runs and this Christmas Terry Pratchett's Nation will surely pack them in again. One of the keys to that success has been to pick material that allows them to take children on a real journey, one often fraught with very real danger, leaving them terrified at the interval and hopefully exhausted and chattering away like maniacs at the end. Morpurgo's novel was a brilliant choice taking us from the rural idyll of Devon, all the way across the channel to the blood-soaked fields of France during the Great War.
The inspired choice is to narrate the book from the point of view of the horse Joey. An animal, with its lack of understanding about humans and their thoughts, motivations and relationships, is a great viewpoint from which to witness the love of a boy for his horse, the brutal horrors of mechanised warfare, and the lengths to which love can carry you. Albert Narracott takes charge of young Joey after his father buys him at auction. 'A yearling colt and a young lad have more in common than awkward gawkishness' and their close bond is forged immediately, Albert working hard to train him to plough, a job the horse isn't built for by any stretch. It isn't long afterwards that Albert's father sells Joey to the army, the ultimatum of 1914 having arrived all of a sudden and the life of the village and the Narracott family in particular about to be turned upside down.
The optimism of troops heading for the continent is difficult for us to grasp now with out historical perspective. For many of those who signed up before conscription the army offered a chance to travel to those who may not previously have left their own county before. The atmosphere of that journey across the channel is witnessed by the horses.
There was all about us on the ship an air of great exuberance and expectancy. The soldiers were buoyant with optimism, as if they were embarking on some great military picnic; it seemed none of us had a care in the world. As they tended us in our stalls the troopers joked and laughed together as I had never heard them before.
That atmosphere soon changes however and it is the horses who provide a great example of the changing nature of warfare. The idea of a cavalry charge bringing an opposing army to its knees is ridiculously out-moded in the face of barbed wire and machine guns. I don't want to say too much more about the plot, but the slow progress and protracted nature of the fighting allows us to see the war from both sides of the trenches. Joey of course has no awareness of British or German, good or bad, he simply sees other humans in terms of their status within the group. His lack of emotional involvement gives Morpurgo the opportunity to present the human characters and let us watch them, in particular seeing how their behaviour is altered by the arrival of this horse and their projections onto it. One character describes why a horse might be deserving of so much attention during such an extreme time.
Can you not see that he's something special? This isn't just any old horse. There's a nobility in his eye, a regal serenity about him. Does he not personify all that men try to be and never can be? I tell you, my friend, there's divinity in a horse, and specially in a horse like this. God got it right the day he created them.
As you may already know I am joining the company of the National's production of War Horse, in fact the first performance with the new cast is this evening. For that reason it may be a little quiet here whilst things settle down. I shall try to keep on top of things but my wife also gave birth to our second child the other day so I promise nothing, except maybe a few more spelling mistakes.