EmptyNational Theatre, London (Through Jan. 12)
It's an imposing puppet made of bamboo, nylon, bicycle chain and leather, and its three human operators are clearly visible, but not long into the National Theatre's captivating production of "War Horse," the steed in the title is a living, breathing force onstage.
Playwright Nick Stafford has adapted the popular novel by Michael Morpurgo about a half-thoroughbred hunter named Joey that goes from a Devon farm into the heat of battle in World War I.
The horse relates his adventures in the first person in the book, but Stafford wisely abandons that conceit for the play, letting the story unfold through dialogue. First seen as an awkward foal, Joey is bought at auction by a farmer whose son, Albert (Luke Treadaway), becomes his devoted master.
Sold to the army when war breaks out, Joey ends up in the midst of some of the worst carnage in history as cavalry charges are mown down by machine gun fire. Eight million horses were killed in the First World War, and at every step Joey threatens to become one of them.
Albert enlists at 16 in order to join the yeomanry but instead spends his time trying to survive in the infantry while Joey lands on the other side of the front line. There, he has the great fortune to come under the care of a German officer who loves horses, and his chances of survival become brighter.
The production is a triumph of design, with the marvelous puppets -- including several horses, a goose, vultures and even a little girl -- rendered not only credible but touching. Created by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, each creature is manipulated by three people who make the sounds and provide the subtlest movements to make them all seem real.
Directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris combine realistic drama with sublime surrealism to convey the rustic warmth of the Devon countryside and the stark clamor of the battlefield. Designer Rae Smith keeps the stage bare using a black backdrop with a vast white slash on which animated images show ships at sea and troops advancing.
Paule Constable's lighting design and Christopher Shutt's sound design are essential elements in the power of the production, helped greatly by Adrian Sutton's evocative music and John Tams' appropriate folk songs.
Treadaway as Albert, Thusitha Jayasundera as Albert's mother and Angus Wright as the caring German officer stand out among the humans, but it is the spectacular horses that make this show a surefire hit.
Presented by the National Theatre in association with Handspring Puppet Company
Playwright: Nick Stafford
Based on the novel by: Michael Morpurgo
Directors: Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Set designer: Rae Smith
Puppets: Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler
Lighting designer: Paule Constable
Music: Adrian Sutton
Video designers: Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer
Sound designer: Christopher Shutt
Major Nicholls: Jamie Ballard
Swallow/Emilie: Alice Barclay
Chapman Carter/Rudi: Jason Barnett
Sgt. Bone, others: James Barriscale
Capt. Stewart, others
Joey's Mother, others: Finn Caldwell
David Taylor/Soldat Schultz: Paul Chequer
Song Man: Tim Van Eyken
Young Man/Topthorn: Thomas Goodridge
Joey's Mother, others: Stephen Harper
Rose Narracott/Private Shaw: Thusitha Jayasundera
Veterinary Officer Bright/Karl: Gareth Kennerly
Crow/Joey: Craig Leo
Young Joey/Emilie: Rachel Leonard
Topthorn/Maj. Callaghan: Tim Lewis
Joey: Tommy Luther
Young Joey/Emilie: Mervyn Millar
Paulette/Crow: Toby Olie
Ted Narracott/Coco: Toby Sedgwick
Ned Warren/Heine: Ashley Taylor-Rhys
Albert Narracott: Luke Treadaway
Sgt. Thunder/Soldat Klebb: Howard Ward
Arthur Warren/Soldat Manfred: Alan Williams
Heine: Matthew Woodyatt
Hauptman Friedrich Muller: Angus Wright