a theatre, film & pop culture review
How do you tell a story that’s been told a thousand times before?
We all know the story of the the First World War. The Great War, the first full-scale war in which modern weapons — machine guns, tanks, gas, bombing airplanes — inflicted mass destruction. It was the War to End All Wars. We’ve read about it from the German perspective, seen it from the French, heard about it from the British. Two dozen countries joined a conflict that spread like disease across continents, killing 10 million people. But there were an additional 8 million deaths that no one ever talks about. Millions of horses died in WWI. One million of these were English steeds taken to France for use by the British army — and only 62,000 of them returned to England. London built a war memorial for them, Michael Morpurgo dedicated a novel to them, and Nick Stafford adapted their tale for the stage.
War Horse is their story.
The Lincoln Center production was imported from London — as all of Broadway’s finest productions of late have been — and it is the National Theatre‘s most successful production to date. In War Horse, a boy’s cherished horse has been sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. Caught up in enemy fire, Joey, the horse, serves on both sides of the war, surviving an incredible journey that finds him abandoned in no-man’s land — a treacherous stretch along the Swiss border to the North Sea full of dug-outs, trenches, and nasty barbed wire fences. Albert, by then a young man, cannot forget his horse, and embarks on a perilous mission to find him and bring him home.
Does this all sound a bit sentimental? Well, sure, it is. This is a story of war and love, of love in war, and it’s a predictable one, full of overly familiar plot lines and two-dimensional characters: the blustering drunk of a father who loses Joey in an foolish bet (made sympathetic and complex by Boris McGiver, adding a layer of vulnerability); the tough-skinned, soft-hearted mother who holds little purpose beyond comforting her son and scolding her husband (a wonderfully warm and spirited Alyssa Bresnahan); a troubled German captain who spares Joey’s life, becoming his philosopher-caretaker (sensitively portrayed by Peter Hermann in the most difficult of the clichéd roles). This is a true ensemble in every sense of the word: the performers create a unified front, working together to add depth and fill gaps.
And their efforts are worthy, as War Horse is one of the most gloriously theatrical, breathtakingly moving productions I have ever had the privilege to experience. Under the direction of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, Albert and Joey’s story is played out with extraordinary, life-sized puppets, created by the South African Handspring Puppet Company and elegantly choreographed by Toby Sedgwick. Three men create the Head, Hind, and Heart of the horse, operating a system of pulleys, strings, and little levers, similar to bicycle gears. The super-light-weight materials used for design suggest the skeleton and muscles of a real horse, and every shiver of skin and flick of an ear denotes meaning and astonishing human-like emotion. “If the puppet is breathing, the puppet is alive,” remarks Adrian Kohler, one-half of Handspring, the other being Basil Jones.
And Joey breathes.
The opening sequence introduces us to Joey as a colt: as his long legs wobble, he curiously inspects his surroundings. Pausing uncertainly, his chest pulses slowly with breath, and his big, doe eyes stare straight into the audience, with ears flicking in anticipation, before lowering slowly and nibbling some grass. Something agitates his nostrils and his entire body shakes and shivers as he sneezes and neighs. In less than a minute, you see Joey — not his three puppeteer-actors who stand to the front and sides of him — and in less than even that you are bonded to him. He is not merely a puppet, he’s not even just a horse. Joey breathes, and he becomes alarmingly human: wild, stubborn, affectionate. And as he transforms into an adult, we watch in agony as he’s torn from his best friend, bravely faces gunfire and tanks, struggles through barbed wire and piles of rotting dead corpses, including those of his fellow steeds. We follow him to the ends of the world and back, rooting for him and weeping for him.
Joey is our titular hero, the heart of the show. But as remarkable as he is, he doesn’t manage it all on his own.
While the people bear the brunt of War Horse‘s dramaturgical weaknesses, Joey and the other animals in war (including one comically tenacious goose, and Topthorn, copper-colored Joey’s black counterpart) enthrall from their ability to move and create lifelike sounds with incredibly detailed precision — and from their beautifully believable and emotional interactions with the human cast. But they — puppets and humans alike — are generously supported by a gorgeous overall design. Paule Constable creates a warm, haunting glow to the action, complimenting Rae Smith’s crisp uniforms and worn farm attire. 59 Productions‘s animated projection designs beautifully capture the trajectory of the war, denoting dates and locales with delicate sketches of maps and lines and lines of soldiers marching across endless fields. Weaving together all of this is Adrian Sutton’s music which, like a cinematic score, floats softly through the quiet moments and intensifies the battles; and John Tams’ songs (yes this is also a musical play) as performed by Kate Pfaffl, provide a narrative commentary on the action that is alternately folksy and stirring anthem.
A simple story told in the most beautifully complex and imaginative of ways, this is a rare instance (on Broadway) of daring artistry and collaboration. Not only a beautiful testament to the animals who serve in a war, War Horse is an astonishing testament to the unique power and potential of the theatrical form.