We watch as Joey initially shies away from Albert when he first arrives at the Narracott farm, and it is enchanting to see how the young boy gradually gains the trust of the frightened foal. Sitting just three rows from the stage a small smile plays across Ted Ellerton’s face as he listens to the audio described performance of War Horse. Ted, who has known horses all his life, can clearly picture the reticent foal and the boy who quietly gains its trust. Soon Joey and Albert are playfully cavorting as Albert blows into Joey’s nose and Joey moves forward, raising his head to blow at Albert, before he swiftly scampers back a few paces. We watch as their friendship evolves until Joey as a foal leaves the stage and a magnificent mature Joey enters. We are entranced as he gallops across the Devon countryside with Albert on his back as they have become inseparable.
It is the audio described matinee performance of War Horse at the New London Theatre on Saturday 22nd November 2014. I am there with three members of Blind Veterans UK in my role as editor of the charity’s Review magazine. It is a magazine that has been published since the charity was founded in 1915 as St Dunstan’s for those soldiers, sailors and airmen who were blinded by gas, shot or shell during the First World War. In total 3,200 men who lost their sight from the First World War came to us and today we support over 3,500 veterans.
As I sit through the performance with Ted Ellerton, a World War Two veteran who landed on D-Day+2 who has age related sight loss, and Chris Nowell and Paul Jacobs GM who were both blinded in Afghanistan there are so many similarities between the powerful story that is being played out on stage and the lives of the members of our charity over the last 100 years. Like Albert Narracott many of the first members of our charity were blinded by mustard gas or as they served in the Cavalry or the Royal Horse Artillery working with the horses on the bloody battlefields of the First World War.
One of the early First World War men to come to our charity was Edward Bates, a Gunner in the Royal Horse Artillery, who had been a soldier since 1911. He was wounded on 22nd October 1914 at Wytschaete, Flanders. He lost his left eye completely and the sight in the other. He entered our Regent’s Park training centre on 21st April 1915. He was in our rowing team and became a masseur, working initially at the 3rd London General hospital, Wandsworth, where some of the war-blinded men would have gone as it was the overflow from the 2nd London General Hospital. He married Ethel, a typist from the RNIB at St Marylebone Church on 8th June 1916.
But there are other, more recent, similarities. Chris Nowell served in the King’s Royal Hussars from 2001 in the UK, Northern Ireland and Iraq and Afghanistan where he was wounded in 2008 by a mortar, losing most of his sight. The King’s Royal Hussars are a Cavalry Regiment that is now part of the Royal Armoured Corps and although Chris went to war in a tank rather than on a horse he was schooled in the same ceremonial riding duties as the First World War men. Through Blind Veterans UK Chris has retrained as a photographer using the limited vision he has in one eye and he took the photographs that are woven through this article.
Ted, Chris and Paul said that they could each picture the events on stage as they listened to the audio descriptions. All three said that the pre-performance Touch Tour when they walked around the stage and met the puppeteers and actors and touched the props helped. It is something that they are keen to do again and highly recommend to other vision impaired and blind people, as the eye is not the only gateway to the mind.
During the Touch Tour we spoke with Jason Langley who plays Captain Nicholls an Officer in an unnamed Regiment that would probably have been the Devonshire Cavalry as we were keen to hear of the research and training he did for his role. He told us “At the National Theatre everything is done to the best that it possibly can be so cast members did lots of research. Someone came in and give us a talk on agriculture at the beginning of the century as that plays a huge part in the play and they also spoke to us about Devon life at the time.
“We visited the Horse Guards, which gave us a great insight as we spent time with them and a Regimental Sergeant Major came in and drilled us. That was a bit of a shock for 40 actors as we’re not the most disciplined or the most soldierly people in the world, so he had to whip us in to shape. He comes in once a year during the rehearsal process and he drilled us and showed us how to salute properly and how to behave as a soldier would. As I play the highest ranked officer in the play it’s good for me to know how to address the men, and how the men should address me and what the courtesies and formalities would have been. My cousin was in the Army and when she came to the play I was keen to get it right for her!”
Returning to the play, Captain Nicholls first meets Joey in Devon when war has been declared and Joey is sold to the army by Ted Narracott. Albert unsuccessfully tried to get Joey back but he was assured by Captain Nicholls that he would look after him for the few short months before they return home —after the war has ended. Captain Nicholls is an artist and above the stage there is a gigantic horizontal strip of white sky that is about 30 metres long. It represents a strip of paper that was ripped from his drawing pad and throughout the performance scenes drawn in charcoal are projected on to it. We see the Narracott farm and the surrounding Devon landscape that Albert and Joey ride across, and as the men sail to France the sea behind them and once in France the battle scenes. These are all described during the show.
In the July 1964 Review our second Chairman Lord Fraser, who was blinded on The Somme by a snipers bullet on 23rd July 1916, recalled those days when he wrote:
“By the time you read these words we shall be approaching August 4th, 1964, the 50th anniversary of the day when the Kaiser’s War, or the Great War, broke out, and the face of Britain and of the world began to change.
“Each of us will have his own recollection and I set down mine, not because it was important, but because it might evoke memories. I was just under 18 years of age and was staying with my uncle in Buckinghamshire, who was a famous breeder of racehorses. For those who know anything about racehorses I might mention that he bred Dark Ronald and Son In Law, two of the great sires whose blood still courses in the veins of the stayers of today.
“We had no radio and when, therefore, we went to bed at midnight on August 3rd, we ordinary people did not know that we should wake to find our country was at war; how different now when the BBC would have stayed awake to tell us.
“At dawn some gravel was thrown at my window and I put my head out to see a local police inspector who said: “War has been declared. Will you wake Mr Donald Fraser and tell him please.” I did that and within an hour my uncle and I and his stud groom were touring the immediate countryside stopping at each village and buying horses from the farmers for the cavalry, the yeomanry and the gunners. The police had already warned the farmers to bring out their horses for compulsory purchase, and my uncle opened his sealed black box in which was a Government cheque book. By breakfast we had bought 50 horses paying for them on the spot, branding their hooves with a broad arrow and sending them off to the remount depots.
“A glimpse of a different war where there was no radio and where men went to war with horses.’”
And it is a very different war that is played out on the stage by sublimely talented actors and puppeteers. We are not spared as we watch, or through the medium of audio descriptions, picture, how men and horses were no match for the might of the tanks, machine guns and mustard gas. The horror of war unfolds on stage and the slaughter of men and animals on a scale never before witnessed. But there are also happy times in War Horse that make us laugh. I loved the Narracott goose. And of course there is a joyful ending.
It is in France that we meet Topthorn, an Army horse who has been shipped to the war. He is a pure thoroughbred who is taller and more finely built than Joey with a gleaming black coat. He belongs to Captain Stewart who is sadly killed in a Cavalry charge, as is Captain Nicholls who is thrown from Joey by the impact and carried across the stage in slow motion with his arms and legs splayed in the form of a star. Joey and Topthorn have become best friends and when they are captured by the German Army it is Topthorn who comforts Joey. They are looked after by Friedrich Müller, a gentle man who does not want to be at war, and with him they pull the ambulances. But the horses are still afraid and in one scene we watch as Topthorn gently places his head onto Joey’s mane to calm and reassure his dear frightened friend. With the slightest of movements he moves his head to caress Joey and it is a display of friendship and love that is both touching and heartbreaking in equal measure. Again the audio description is clear as Ted, Paul and Chris pictured this.
Just an hour earlier we had sat with Andy Brunskill, the Resident Director of War Horse, Miles Yekhemi, James Alexander-Taylor and Caroline Bowman, who each bring Topthorn to life, as they are his head, heart and hind. As I watch Topthorn I no longer see them as they make me forget that he is a cage made from aluminium, wood, cane and net. These three supremely skilled puppeteers turn him into a living, breathing strong black thoroughbred. He makes the rich deep sound of a horse, his sinews ripple as he moves, his chest rises as he rests and his ears move at the slightest sound. I am captivated.
Before the matinee performance I asked Andy Brunskill what it is like to work on Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, especially in the centenary year of the First World War, and if it was difficult to bring fresh ideas to such a well known story.
“It is an honour to work on War Horse, especially in the centenary year of the First World War. It’s an absolutely incredible show and one that encourages re-examination. So for the actors and puppeteers who join the show we tell them there are basic flag posts that we have to hit in terms of story and staging, but we’re up for reinvestigating it, reanalysing it and mining for different meanings. And that’s interesting and stimulating for the directors, the puppetry directors and the actors.
“There’s always something different in each performance. There are Joey and Topthorn with three teams of puppeteers per horse so they rotate, because they couldn’t do eight shows a week regularly as they’d end up breaking. As a lot of the guys who come to puppetry are actors, or have acted, they bring their own actorly instincts, which mean that each person who interacts with Joey or Topthorn knows what each team is like. And they say ‘he doesn’t like it when I touch his face’ or ‘he’s much more reticent in this scene.‘ If you are ever backstage before or after a show they’re all talking about ‘that didn’t work’ or ‘maybe we can try that next time.’ Or they’re grabbing another head puppeteer or another heart puppeteer and asking them to watch as they try something new with these hugely complex puppets.”
Miles Yekhemi, who is Topthorn’s head, gave an insight into what goes through his mind on stage when he said: “When we are in sync together it’s easy to just think ‘OK we’re Topthorn we’re the horse.’ But to be like that it’s a constant negotiation on stage, which is why you never really get the same two shows ever because it also depends on how we are that day as a team.
“To have you guys here today in the centenary year with all the history you bring is incredible. I’ve found that sometimes I might become complacent and think only of Topthorn, but then I think ‘actually you’re telling a much bigger story. You are just one piece. A very, very small piece of telling this huge story.’ And it’s a privilege to do your small bit in that big story. I don’t ever go out expecting them [the audience] to go ‘Oh the puppets they’re wonderful’ and for that to be all that they came for. We know that they came for the story, they came for what the story represents. One hundred years on, it’s a story that needs to be told, and what’s incredible and an honour is to see people still flooding into the theatre.”
James: “As there are three teams per horse you have two different teams on stage every night in the horses so the dynamics between the horses will be different every night. I think, for me anyway, that’s the most exciting thing, as it can in a way be unpredictable about how the show will go. You obviously have to get from A to B on stage, but how you get there is different every time and part of being as one as a team is essential in order to make that puppet tell the story. So simple things like breathing together and having the same thought process throughout a scene are essential as you all have your emotional and technical role that you have to nail for each other. These guys are dependent on me, but more importantly I’m dependent on these two [Miles and Caroline] so I can give them what they need from me.”
Caroline: “You have to learn to trust. Our rehearsal process is two months, which is extraordinarily long and a lot of that is just spent subconsciously learning who the other people are without talking. So every time you get in the horse you feel how the other two people move, how they stop, how they think. We’ve been in War Horse since January  and it might sound absurd but we’re still learning. A massive thing is learning to trust. I’d never worked with Miles or James before and it’s a huge deal trusting people, especially when you’re running round the stage with someone on top of you.”
James: “If you think about it there’s myself in the heart, Caroline in the hind and Miles on the head who’s outside the horse, which means that he doesn’t have the point of view of the puppet as we do. We’re in a sense fused together by an aluminium frame and you can either go forward or backwards or sideways — you can’t go diagonally and feel comfortable together. So when you’re sprinting around inside a 10 stone puppet if you’re not trusting each other it can be really, really dangerous. And there have been times that it’s been a bit hairy! And Miles has these two people fused together sprinting forward and he’s running backwards. So you need that trust and you need the two months of rehearsal to really get together and make it show ready.”
To finish Miles, James and Caroline showed us how they become Topthorn when Andy asked: ‘Shall we do one?’ We didn’t know what to expect and are overjoyed as they leant in towards one another on the sofa and made the sound of a horse. They were utterly convincing and it was a taster of what was to come.
Seated front row Paul Jacobs GM who came to Blind Veterans UK after he was blinded in Afghanistan on 20 August 2009 while Serving with 2nd Battalion The Rifles when he attempted to retrieve a mortally wounded colleague. Paul was caught in an IED explosion which has left him totally blind. In recognition of his bravery he was awarded the George Medal by The Queen. He is pictured with Ted Ellerton and behind them are James Alexander Taylor Topthorn heart, Miles Yekhemi Topthorn head and Caroline Bowman Topthorn hind with Andy Brunskill Resident Director.
Returning to the play when Albert receives Captain Nicholls sketch book with news of his death he joins the Army to go in search of his beloved Joey, tearing one of the charcoal drawings from the book. In France Albert makes a new bestfriend in David Taylor, played by Tony McGeever.
Albert is soon immersed in the grim reality of war. After another day of bitter fighting and bloodshed, as he walks through a field of ghosts, its soil crimson with the blood of the lifeless soldiers who lie looking up to God; crows descend onto the body of a dead horse. A split second later we see that it is still alive as its skeletal chest raises in the breast of the mortally wounded and ghostly, yet once beautiful beast that has known great suffering and terror. Seeing that it is still alive is too much for Albert to bear and with precision he forces his sword into the wounded horse, swiftly releasing it.
After the show Ted Ellerton said that as he listened to the audio descriptions he understood just how Albert would have felt. Ted, who is 89, told us of one of the most potent memories in his long life. It was 80 years earlier when he stayed in a stable throughout the night with his Uncle Ted as they delivered a foal. It was the only time that his uncle spoke to him of his time during the First World War when he worked with horses on the gun carriages.
Ted Ellerton said: “As a young boy I recall riding on a cob with my Uncle Ted to the stables where he worked at J Arthur Rank’s flour mill in the city of Kingston upon Hull. As one of the mares was in labour we spent the night in the stables as he nursed her. He spoke of the time he was in charge of a gun carriage in action and they came under heavy shellfire in deep mud. He said how he tried to get the crippled horse out of its harness in order to keep the gun team moving forward. He would relive those terrible times as he comforted the horses in the stable. He spoke of another time in Ypres when his gun team was blown up. He was knocked unconscious and when he awoke he found that he was lying in a field of dead bodies. As some of the horses were still alive he had to slit their throats to end their suffering. It was something that haunted him for the rest of his life.
“He lay in the field and hid from the Germans for weeks. Initially he was too weak to even stand and he lived on the turnips that were planted in it. He said that it was a strange feeling to be alive amongst the bodies of the men and the horses. He eventually returned to his Battalion and he was put back to work on the gun carriages. After that night he never spoke to me again of the horrors that he saw. “
To finish on a light hearted note, we had spoken with Jimmy Grimes, the Assistant Puppetry Director, during the Touch Tour as we stood beside Joey who towered above us and Nicholas Hart who is his head, Gareth Aled his heart and Will Palmer his hind brought him to life. Jimmy told us: “The biggest job for the puppeteers is to make sure that the horse feels alive throughout the show. They have to look like they have real muscle through controlled movement. To achieve this the puppeteers have to be really selective and use really small movements. If each of the puppeteers does a couple of those really small movements it builds up to a picture of a real living horse. They have to be really calm as the horses, apart from when they’re in war scenes, are actually quite still. You start with that and gradually you progress and the puppeteers are galloping as Joey and Topthorn. I came to War Horse just over two years ago and part of the work for me and the puppeteers was to learn as much as we could about horses. We read a lot of books about horse behaviour and horse psychology and the way that horses see the world and we met with people who work with horses in different capacities and went to stables. A funny story is that one of our puppet directors is absolutely terrified of horses. Everyday he’ll come here and work with the Joey and Topthorn puppets and he’ll go to the stable visits, but he’s always a bit nervous to go up and to actually make contact with the horses!”
We leave the theatre after Albert has been reunited with Joey and they return to their family in Devon. It has been a great day and I have been asked by Ted, Chris and Paul to thank everyone involved in the production, both on and off stage. Our thanks also go to the audio describers Andrew Holland and Roz Chalmers. Reuben Lane and Susan Gregory who demonstrated the audio equipment. Eamonn Byrne, War Horse Company Manager and Ros Hayes, Head of Access at the National Theatre. Thank you. Of course not forgetting Michael Morpurgo for his genius.
Blind Veterans UK provides free support to ex Armed Forces and National Service personnel with sight loss. Find out how to refer someone.