War Horse (play)

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War Horse
War-Horse Poster.jpg
War Horse stageplay advertising poster
Written by Michael Morpurgo (novel)
Nick Stafford (play)
Date premiered 17 October 2007
Place premiered Royal National Theatre, London, England
Original language English
Genre Drama
Setting England, France (1914-1918)
[National Theatre (London); Lincoln Center Theater (New York); Princess of Wales Theatre (Toronto) Official site]
IBDB profile

War Horse is a play based on the book of the same name by children's writer Michael Morpurgo, adapted for stage by Nick Stafford. Originally Morpurgo thought "they must be mad" to try to make a play from his best-selling 1982 novel; none-the-less, the play was a success.[1] The play's West End and Broadway productions are directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris; it features life-size horse puppets by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, with "horse choreography" by Toby Sedgwick.[2]


A captured foal is brought to Devon in the United Kingdom to be auctioned. Hoping to give it to his son Billy, Arthur Narracott bids on the foal; instead, his brother Ted outbids Arthur by 39 guineas--an exorbitant amount for a poor farmer. Ted is the local drunkard and considered to be a coward, by some, for refusing to fight alongside Arthur in South Africa many years earlier. To pay for the foal, Ted uses the money meant to pay the mortgage on his farm. Ted's wife Rose is not pleased, so their son Albert promises to raise the foal until he is ready to be sold. Albert names the foal Joey and the two form a strong bond as the foal grows and Albert trains him.

Jealous of his cousin Albert, Billy convinces his father to get Ted drunk and make a bet with him: if Joey (a hunter, not a plow horse) can be taught to plow within a week, Arthur will pay Ted the 39 guineas of Joey's original auction price. If Joey won't plow, Billy gets the horse. Ted arrives home drunk, late at night, and whips Joey to force him into obedience. Luckily for Joey, Rose and Albert intervene. Albert teaches Joey to pull while wearing a harness. Joey responds at the climax and pulls the plough. Ted wins the bet and Albert keeps the horse.

News of the outbreak of World War I reaches Devon. Ted sells Joey to the cavalry and Albert is crushed. Lieutenant James Nicholls, who originally bid for Joey and often sketched Albert riding the hunter, promises that he will personally look after the fine horse. At the same time, Arthur enlists Billy to fight despite his protests. Arthur gives Billy his grandfather's knife for protection. Joey and Topthorn (another army horse) are shipped to France. There, the British cavalry is overwhelmed by the machine guns which represent the new technology of the Germans. During the first charge, Nicholls is shot and killed. Billy is assigned to ride Joey into battle. There, he is captured by German troops.

Topthorn and Joey, life-size puppet horses, at a production of the play in Australia

Nicholls's sketchbook is sent to Albert, who receives it just before Christmas. Horrified by the fact that Joey is serving unprotected in France, Albert enlists in the army by lying about his age. He befriends a fellow soldier in the infantry, Private David Taylor, who writes letters home for Albert. Billy is brought with the Germans to a French farm being used as a makeshift hospital. When a nerve-wracked Billy takes back his knife from a German officer and appears to be brandishing it, he is killed. Emilie, the little girl of the farm family, is nearly killed. Emilie reminds a German officer, Friedrich Muller, of his daughter left in Germany. The memory causes him to struggle with his revulsion for the senselessness of war. He shares his love of horses with Emilie. Together, along with Emilie's mother, they take care of the horses Joey and Topthorn, which are being kept to pull an ambulance for wounded soldiers.

When a shell takes out most of his comrades, Friedrich switches his coat and identity with an enlisted medic, hoping to survive and return home to his family. Some of his former comrades return and his subterfuge is discovered. Friedrich enables Emilie and her mother to escape, but he is caught. Joey's ability to pull while wearing a harness saves his life and that of Topthorn, when the Germans force the two to work as draft horses by joining two severely weakened horses in pulling heavy artillery. Once enemies, Joey and Topthorn become friends, until Topthorn dies from exhaustion.

Friedrich mourns over Topthorn, but suddenly the group is interrupted by a tank attack. Friedrich is killed and Joey runs away, The runaway horse is caught in barbed wire in No Man's Land between the enemy lines. The Germans and British each send out a man under a white flag to aid the horse. Flipping a coin after they free the horse, the British win and take the wounded horse back to their camp. Meanwhile, Albert and David's infantry division come across Emilie, who is alone and traumatized by what she has seen; the two young men are ordered to take her to headquarters. On the way, Albert sees the dead horse with Billy's knife still in him. Believing that the horse is Joey, Albert is broken. Recognizing Joey's name, Emilie tries to talk to Albert about the horse, but David is suddenly shot and killed and Albert is blinded by tear gas. So she never has the opportunity to talk about Joey.

Behind the lines, in a British encampment, Albert tells his story to a nurse just as the damaged Joey is brought to the camp by soldiers. As Joey is about to be shot and killed, Albert hears what is going on; he whistles to the horse, who goes to him. As the soldiers learn his story, they agree to let Albert care for Joey. The horse and farmboy turned soldier return home safe to Devon at the end of the war.


Off-West End (2007–09)[edit]

The show premiered on 17 October 2007 in the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre on the South Bank, London, on a run that ended on 14 February 2008.[3] It returned for a second run on 10 September 2008, and closed on 18 March 2009.[4]

West End (2009–)[edit]

War Horse transferred to the West End's New London Theatre, beginning preview performances on 28 March 2009, prior to an official opening of 3 April.[5][6] The original cast featured Kit Harington as Albert, who reprised his South Bank performance.[7][8][9] The production includes an original score composed by Adrian Sutton.

The production drew praise for its use of life-size animal puppets (Joey pictured at a promotional event)

The production met with critical acclaim for its powerful use of life-size horse puppets designed by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, winning an Olivier Award, Evening Standard Theatre Award and London Critics' Circle Theatre Award.[10] On 12 October 2009 the performance was seen by HM Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, marking their first private theatre visit in four years.[11]

War Horse has been popular with audiences, playing to 97% capacity in 2010, subsequently breaking the record for the highest weekly gross for a play in the West End. In December 2010, War Horse was dubbed "the theatrical event of the decade" by The Times.[12] In 2011 it welcomed its millionth audience member.[13]

Broadway (2011–2013)[edit]

As a co-production of the National Theatre and Lincoln Center,[14] War Horse began preview performances at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York City on 15 March 2011, and opened on Broadway 14 April.[15] The British creative team are joined by an all-American cast.[16] Seth Numrich originated the leading role of Albert. The production was only scheduled to have a limited run, closing on 26 June 2011, but soon became open-ended after strong critical reception and ticket sales.[17] The production received five Tony Awards at the 2011 ceremony, including Best Play.

War Horse closed on 6 January 2013, after 718 performances and 33 previews.[18]

Toronto, Canada (2012–2013)[edit]

The show opened a separate Canadian production in Toronto, Ontario, on 28 February 2012 at Mirvish Productions' Princess of Wales Theatre, following previews from 10 February.[13] Alex Furber starred as Albert.[19] The production closed on 6 January 2013.[20]

US national tour (2012–)[edit]

The show's first national tour of the United States previewed at the State University's Morrison Center in Boise, Idaho, before launching at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, California, from 14 June 2012 on a run through 29 July. It was scheduled for an additional 29 cities across the country.[21][22][23][24] The role of Albert was played by Andrew Veenstra.[25]

Australian Tour (2012–)[edit]

The Australian premiere production began previews on 23 December 2012, prior to a 31 December opening night at the Arts Centre Melbourne. It played until 10 March 2013, ahead of dates in Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland.[26] The role of Albert was played by Cody Fern[27]

UK National Tour (2013–)[edit]

According to the official website, War Horse embarked on a UK Tour starting Autumn 2013.[28]

Berlin, Germany (2013–)[edit]

The first non-English-language production launched in Berlin, Germany, on 20 October 2013 at the Stage Theater des Westens.[29] Marking the centenary of the first world war, War Horse is the first play about the war to be put on in Germany since that war began. It was produced in the same theatre attended by the Kaiser and Hitler. Someone called the play "the greatest anthem to peace" ever seen on the stage.[30]

"An English play translated into German, it has a German cast, singing English folksongs in German...I was there on the first night in Berlin. It was a night to remember. A night I will never forget." --Michael Morpurgo[30]

Film adaptation[edit]

Main article: War Horse (film)

Steven Spielberg directed the United States movie adaptation of War Horse, released on 25 December 2011, with a screenplay written by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall based on the novel.[31] The film was shot entirely in England: in Devon, at Stratfield Saye in Berkshire, at Wisley in Surrey, in Luton Hoo Estate, Bedfordshire, and at Castle Combe in Wiltshire. It was filmed naturalistically, with real horses and computer-generated imagery to support battle scenes.[32]

In popular culture[edit]

Saturday Night Live spoofed "War Horse" on an episode aired December 17, 2011. The sketch features a British couple (played by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) attending a regional production of "War Horse." Instead of a life-size horse puppet, the role of Joey is played by host Jimmy Fallon, who cavorts around the stage, slapping his legs in an imitation of hoofbeats, neighing, and eventually robot dancing.[33]

Critical reception[edit]

The Guardian's Michael Billington wrote in his review:

Elliott and Morris recreate the kaleidoscopic horror of war through bold imagery, including the remorseless advance of a manually operated tank, and through the line-drawings of Rae Smith projected on to a suspended screen. Admittedly the performers are somewhat eclipsed by the action ... The joy of the evening, however, lies in the skilled recreation of equine life and in its unshaken belief that mankind is ennobled by its love of the horse.[34]

Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph had written that, generally, "puppets are often an embarrassment, involving a lot of effort and fuss for negligible returns"; in this case, he praised the puppetry as "truly magnificent creations by the Handspring Puppet Company."[35] The Times' 10-year-old guest reviewer called the show "movingly and realistically brought to life" and "an emotional and compelling adaptation of the book."[36]

Joey and members of the cast at a production of the play in Australia

In reviewing the Broadway production, Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, "...it is how Joey is summoned into being, along with an assortment of other animals, that gives this production its ineffably theatrical magic...Beautifully designed by Rae Smith ... and Paule Constable, this production is also steeped in boilerplate sentimentality. Beneath its exquisite visual surface, it keeps pushing buttons like a sales clerk in a notions shop."[37] Brantley suggests,

"The implicit plea not to be forgotten applies not just to the villagers, soldiers and horses portrayed here, but also to theater, as an evanescent art that lives on only in audiences’ memories. Judged by that standard, much of War Horse evaporates not long after it ends. But I would wager that for a good while, you’ll continue to see Joey in your dreams."[37]

Entertainment Weekly gave a positive review, calling the show an

"imaginative, moving new Broadway drama ... The play's equine stars are the remarkable creation of Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones' Handspring Puppet Company. As manipulated by three handlers dressed in period costumes, the life-size creatures seem to breathe, snort, feed, walk, gallop, and rear up just as naturally as the genuine articles. In no time at all, they become characters as rounded and complex as any of the humans on stage."[38]

Time magazine ranked the play as its top choice among all theatre productions in 2011.[39]

The Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout praised the puppetry, but gave mixed reactions to the play:

"The fundamental flaw of 'War Horse' is that Nick Stafford, who wrote the script 'in association' (that's how the credit reads) with South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, has taken a book that was written for children and tried to give it the expressive weight of a play for adults. Not surprisingly, Mr. Morpurgo's plot can't stand the strain. Dramatic situations that work perfectly well in the context of the book play like Hollywood clichés onstage. In the first act, the craftsmanship is so exquisite that this doesn't matter—much—but things go downhill fast after intermission. The really big problem is the last scene, about which, once again, the drama critics' code commands silence. This much must be said, though: A play that is so forthright about the horrors of war owes its audience a more honest ending."[40]

Theatre review aggregator Curtain Critic gave the production a score of 88 out of 100 based on the opinions of 21 critics.[41]

Awards and nominations[edit]

London production[edit]

2007 Evening Standard Awards[42]
  • Best Director (Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, nominee)
  • Best Design (Rae Smith and the Handspring Puppet Company, winner)
2007 Critics' Circle Theatre Awards[43]
  • Best Designer (Basil Jones, Adrian Kohler, Rae Smith, and the Handspring Puppet Company, winner)
2008 Laurence Olivier Awards[44]
  • Best New Play (nominee)
  • Best Lighting Design (Paule Constable, nominee)
  • Best Sound Design (Adrian Sutton and John Tams, nominee)
  • Best Set Design (Rae Smith, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, winner)
  • Best Theatre Choreographer (Toby Sedgwick, winner)
  • Best Director (Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, nominee)
2010 Laurence Olivier Awards[13]
  • Audience Award for Most Popular Show (nominee)
2012 TheatrePeople.com Awards
  • Nominated for 'Favourite Play' and 'Favourite Family Show'

Broadway production[edit]

2011 Drama League Awards[45]
  • Distinguished Production of a Play (winner)
  • Distinguished Performance (Seth Numrich, nominee)
2011 Tony Awards[46]
  • Best Play (winner)
  • Best Direction of a Play (Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, winner)
  • Best Scenic Design of a Play (Rae Smith, winner)
  • Best Lighting Design of a Play (Paule Constable, winner)
  • Best Sound Design of a Play (Christopher Shutt, winner)

In addition, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company won the Special Tony Award for War Horse.

2011 Drama Desk Awards
  • Outstanding Play (winner)
2011 Outer Critics Circle Awards[47][48]
  • Outstanding New Broadway Play (winner)
  • Outstanding Director of a Play (Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, winner)
  • Outstanding Lighting Design (Paule Constable, winner)
  • Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play (Seth Numrich, nominee)

In addition, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company won the Outer Critics Circle Special Achievement Award, for "Puppet Design, Fabrication and Direction for War Horse".

2011 Fred & Adele Astaire Awards[49]
  • Best Broadway Choreographer (Toby Sedgwick, nominee)


  1. ^ Morpurgo, Michael (21 August 2010). "Adapt and survive". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2011-02-27. 
  2. ^ Itzkoff, Dave (20 December 2010). "‘War Horse’ Corrals Its American Cast". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 March 2011. 
  3. ^ Official London Theatre Guide: War Horse[dead link]
  4. ^ "War Horse". Retrieved 20 January 2010.
  5. ^ "War Horse Opens in the West End 3/28/09". Broadwayworld.com. 8 December 2008. 
  6. ^ "Lincoln Center's New Season Is 'Women on the Verge', 'A Free Man of Color' and 'War Horse'". Playbill. 10 February 2010.
  7. ^ Staff writer (2 July 2009). "Theatre Interview with Kit Harington – The 22-Year-Old Stars in War Horse at the New London Theatre". thelondonpaper. Accessed 20 January 2010.
  8. ^ "PHOTO CALL: Puppet-Heavy 'War Horse' Rides in London" playbill.com
  9. ^ Database (undated). "Kit Harington". London Theatre Database. Accessed 20 January 2010.
  10. ^ Handspring Puppet Company": 2007 Awards[dead link]
  11. ^ "The Queen’s secret trip to theatre stuns audience", This Is London (UK)
  12. ^ "The Times". Entertainment.timesonline.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-08-29. 
  13. ^ a b c Shenton, Mark. "Nicola Stephenson and Patrick Robinson Join Cast of West End's War Horse", playbill.com, 1 March 2011.
  14. ^ Als, Hilton (25 April 2011). "War Games: Battles at home and abroad". The New Yorker (Condé Nast): 86–87. Retrieved 3 July 2013. 
  15. ^ BBC: "War Horse play gets Broadway run" bbc.co.uk, BBC.
  16. ^ Lincoln Center Theater, "War Horse"; retrieved 10 March 2011.
  17. ^ " 'War Horse' To Gallop On Indefinitely at Lincoln Center" New York Times, 15 April 2011
  18. ^ International Hit War Horse Ends Broadway Run Jan. 6; Toronto Production Also Closes Playbill, 6 January, 2013
  19. ^ "Tony-Winning War Horse Assembles Cast for 2012 Toronto Debut". Playbill. Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  20. ^ International Hit War Horse Ends Broadway Run Jan. 6; Toronto Production Also Closes Playbill, 6 January, 2013
  21. ^ Culture Monster (15 March 2011). "Ahmanson Theatre's 2011–12 season to include 'War Horse' and new 'Funny Girl' revival". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 16 April 2011. 
  22. ^ "War Horse Announces Preliminary Stops for 20-City National Tour". Playbill. Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  23. ^ Hetrick, Adam (9 May 2011). "'The Caretaker With Jonathan Pryce', 'War Horse', 'Bring It On!' to Play San Francisco". Playbill. Retrieved 9 May 2011. 
  24. ^ "WAR HORSE to Launch National Tour and Toronto Production in 2012!". Broadwayworld.com. 11 May 2011. Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  25. ^ "National Tour of War Horse to Feature Andrew Veenstra, Todd Cerveris and Angela Reed". Playbill.com. Retrieved 2012-08-29. 
  26. ^ "War Horse on Stage". warhorseonstage.com. Retrieved 2013-02-10. 
  27. ^ http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/arts-books/cody-fern-ready-for-the-ride-of-his-life-in-war-horse/story-fn7euh6j-1226496323743
  28. ^ "Official International Site | UK Tour". War Horse on Stage. Retrieved 2012-08-29. 
  29. ^ "Official International Site | Berlin". War Horse on Stage. Retrieved 2012-08-29. 
  30. ^ a b Morpurgo, Michael (1 Jan 2014). First world war centenary is a year to honour the dead but not to glorify. The Guardian. 
  31. ^ "Cast Revealed For Spielberg’s War Horse, Lead Role Goes Elsewhere". The Film Stage. 17 June 2010. Retrieved 17 June 2010. 
  32. ^ Morpurgo, Michael. "How my War Horse won its spurs with Steven Spielberg", Daily Mail (UK), 23 February 2011
  33. ^ "Saturday Night Live Transcripts". 
  34. ^ Billington, Michael."War Horse", The Guardian, 18 October 2007, accessed 2 April 2011.
  35. ^ Spencer, Charles. "War Horse: Horse play is no puppet show", The Telegraph, 18 October 2007.
  36. ^ "A ten-year-old's take on War Horse at the New London Theatre", The Sunday Times, 22 May 2009
  37. ^ a b Brantley, Ben."Theater Review:A Boy and His Steed, Far From Humane Society" The New York Times, 2011.
  38. ^ "War Horse (2011)". Entertainment Weekly. 15 April 2011. Retrieved 15 April 2011. 
  39. ^ Zoglin, Richard. "The Best of 2011: Theater", Time magazine, 19 December 2011 issue, p. 77
  40. ^ Teachout, Terry (15 April 2011). "Manipulated Puppets, Manipulated Tears". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 15 April 2011. 
  41. ^ "War Horse". Curtain Critic. Retrieved 28 June 2012. 
  42. ^ "Evening Standard nominations – 2007". Holidayextras.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-08-29. 
  43. ^ "Broadwayworld.com". Westend.broadwayworld.com. Retrieved 2012-08-29. 
  44. ^ "Hairspray Wins Four 2008 Laurence Olivier Awards Including Best Musical" playbill.com
  45. ^ "Book of Mormon, Priscilla, Sister Act, War Horse, Good People and More Are Drama League Nominees". Playbill. Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  46. ^ "Winners List – All Categories". Tony Awards. Retrieved 14 June 2011. 
  47. ^ Gans, Andrew."Outer Critics Circle Nominees Include 'Sister Act', 'Anything Goes', 'Book of Mormon' " playbill.com, 26 April 2011
  48. ^ Gans, Andrews. "'War Horse', 'Book of Mormon', 'Other Desert Cities', 'The Kid' Are Outer Critics Circle Winners" playbill.com, 16 May 2011
  49. ^ Broadway.com Staff (27 April 2011). "Catch Me If You Can, Daniel Radcliffe, Sutton Foster & More Earn Astaire Award Nominations". Broadway.com. Retrieved 27 April 2011. 

External links[edit]