from rural Devon to the depths of war-ravaged France
Premiering in 2007 at the National Theatre, War Horse featured projection and video design by 59 Productions. Now, a decade later, War Horse has had 8 record-record breaking years in London’s West End and played in 11 countries around the world to over 7 million people.
At the outbreak of World War One, Joey, young Albert’s beloved horse, is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. he’s soon caught up in enemy fire, and fate takes him on an extraordinary odyssey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone in no man’s land. But Albert cannot forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist, he embarks on a treacherous mission to find him and bring him home.
Based on the beloved novel by Michael Morpurgo, this powerfully moving and imaginative drama, filled with stirring music and songs, is a show of phenomenal inventiveness. At its heart are astonishing life-sized horses by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, who bring breathing, galloping, charging horses to thrilling life on stage.
Supporting these theatrical wonders is 59’s projection design, which transports audiences from rural Devon to the depths of war-ravaged France. Drawing on war artists and charcoal sketches of the war, the animations present an expressionistic vision of war, that is powerfully entrenched in the horror, power and textures of the worlds first mechanised war.
‘BASED ON THE BELOVED NOVEL BY MICHAEL MORPURGO, THIS POWERFULLY MOVING AND IMAGINATIVE DRAMA, FILLED WITH STIRRING MUSIC AND SONGS, IS A SHOW OF PHENOMENAL INVENTIVENESS.’
‘Sweeping drama of extraordinary power. Its sheer skill and invention are simply awe-inspiring.’
‘After the success of His Dark Materials and Coram Boy, the National Theatre has acquired a deserved reputation for its epic family shows. With War Horse, based on the novel by the former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo, it has topped even those magnificent productions.’
‘An astonishingly complete performance? War Horse has a huge heart, stirring music, an endearing performance by Luke Treadaway, and will have you sobbing all the way back to the car park. Loved it.’
‘War Horse only confirms the National’?s extraordinary knack of turning children’s literature into the finest drama. Stunning.’
Central to Rae Smith’s set design is a 25 metre wide, irregular projection screen, resembling a torn strip of paper, that forms the focus of a design which is otherwise minimalist and transient.
The screen serves a number of purposes, having projected upon it drawings which provide, in turn, literal and psychological landscapes. It is used as a medium to establish location, show the passing of time and to mimic motion. For example, snippets of images move the audience from a Devon farmscape to no man’s land, via a sinking horizon which imitates the movement of a ship across water.
There is a pronounced contrast in screen content between the first and second halves. In the first, sepia tones are used to convey much of the subject matter for the pastoral Devon scenes. The second half, by contrast, draws upon the more aggressive and abstract Vorticism used by the war artists, augmented by stark shadow puppetry.
This ‘shift in palette’ as was the result of close collaboration between Rae Smith, Paule Constable and the video designers Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer of Fifty Nine Productions Ltd.
Leo and Mark developed the visual language of the screen – which runs throughout the entire show – over a period of several weeks during rehearsals, ensuring the journey from rural idyll to the horror of war was carefully developed alongside the stage action.
In addition to the archival research and bespoke filming required, Leo and Mark incorporated drawings, executed by Rae herself, which then underwent considerable manipulation, turning Rae’s monochrome drawings into multi-layered images which were graded and treated to create a cohesive whole with the lighting and stage picture.
Some of this involved the creation of movement – for example, tracking and panning ‘camera-style’ around images such as the sketch of a galloping horse and rider – and creating special effects like water, blood, smoke and explosions. Textures were also created on the screen, moving from sepia and faded-out paper, through various stages of stained and battered surfaces to the photography in the penultimate scene.
Excerpted with kind permission from Julie Harper, from an article for Light & Sound International
‘War Horse is pure animal magic… Thanks to the National, children’s theatre is riding higher than ever.’
Mail on Sunday
‘A faultless cast… inhabit its world totally and so will you as you shed tears watching it.’
‘A remarkable achievement… an astonishing piece of theatre.’
Puppet Design and Fabrication
Director of Movement
The National Theatre