Saturday, February 20, 2010

Theater Review: War Horse

A lucky coincidence led me to the theater last Night (a chance comment, a generous friend, an extra ticket, a free evening), to see the National Theatre's epic play War Horse in the West End. Based on the children's novel by Michael Morpugo, War Horse is the story of the First World War seen through the eyes of Joey, a farm horse who is sold to a yeomanry cavalry division, shipped off to France, serves first on the British, and after being captured, on the German sides before ending up wounded, wandering in no-man's land. Joey is pursued by his young master Albert, who signs up at the age of 16 determined to find his horse amid the carnage of the trenches.

As Black Beauty proved, it is possible to tell a story through the eyes and words of a horse, but how do you do it on stage, and make the horse the most important character in the show? The answer for the National Theatre is puppetry. Joey and the other horses in the show (I think I counted eight in all) are truly magnificent creations by the Handspring Puppet Company: metal framework, translucent fabric skin, and extraordinary, fully-articulated mobility. Masterfully handled by a team of three puppeteers, the horses gallop and trot, whinny and nicker; their ears flick, their ribbon tails swish and their manes shiver. The horses somehow capture the very essence of everything equine. After a while, the puppeteers seem to vanish, and you simply see a horse on stage. It was astonishing.

The play is much more than a puppet show, however. Nick Stafford's powerful adaptation of Morpugo's novel, which tells the story through dialogue between the human characters, brilliantly captures not only the close relationship between humans and animals, but also the dreadful waste and terror of the First World War. And there is something so noble about these horses that they can withstand the weight of human emotion placed upon them. What cannot happen on film crystallizes on stage: the moody lighting, animations projected on a panel above the action, live folk music, and the sight of horses and sword-brandishing soldiers charging across no-man's land into great blasts of machine gun fire encapsulate the futility of the conflict. War Horse is an outstanding piece of theatre, whatever your age.

And I must admit: it isn't simply the emotions of the characters on stage that are apparent, but also those of the audience, sniffing and dabbing at their eyes throughout. Dear reader, I count myself one of them. As someone who wept when the CGI elephants in Lord of the Rings went down, I say without shame that when those miraculous horses galloped out of the wings to take their curtain call, rearing and neighing, I couldn't help sobbing. I challenge you to watch the trailer at the top of this post with a dry eye.

Here's a link to a Channel 4 news item about the puppets used in the show, including an interview with the geniuses at Handspring:

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