First of all, full disclosure. I thought Stephen Spielberg’s movie version of War Horse, despite its visual beauty, was pure, sentimental treacle. It was just another routine version of the Black Beauty format – a horse going from owner to owner. I was holding out for better things from the play, and it didn’t disappoint.
The difference is imagination. In the movie, there are real horses. In the play, stupendous puppets have been created to give the illusion of horses. The audience has to suspend disbelief which is always a stimulating theatrical experience. War Horse is a magnificent production because of its extraordinary visual miracles.
The play is based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel of the same name. While the play veers further away from the novel than the movie in terms of plot, the general theme remains the same. War Horse has an anti-war message. Nothing could be louder or clearer.
The plot, adapted by Nick Stafford, is very simple. Albert (Alex Furber), a farm lad from Devon, loves his horse Joey to such a degree, that he runs away to join the army, even though he’s only 16. He wants to find his beloved Joey who has been sold to the army as a cavalry horse during World War One.
Other major characters in this original Canadian stage version are Albert’s father and mother (Brad Rudy and Tamara Bernier Evans) his uncle Arthur (Richard McMillan), his cousin Billy (Steven Yaffee), Captain Nicholls (Brendan Murray), his army buddy David Taylor (Patrick Kwok-Choon), the German soldier Friedrich Müller (Patrick Galligan), and the little French girl Emilie (Addison Holley). Melanie Doane and Tatjana Cornij are the singing narrators. (Some heavy-hitting Stratford and Shaw types in the cast, to be sure, which adds to the show’s gravitas.)
And let’s give a big kudos to the horses’ actors – Mairi Babb, Patrick Kwok-Choon and Rahnuma Panthaky as the foal Joey; Brendan J. Rowland, Adam Cunningham and Sean C. Robertson as the adult Joey; and James Retter Duncan, Troy Feldman and Christy Adamson as Topthorn. It is fitting that at the curtain call, these actors take their own bows, and were greeted with loud cheers from the audience.
A lot of the acting in War Horse is blustery which results in muddy diction and mono-dimensional character portrayal. The various accents don’t help either. Normally, this would be a big factor for me except the quality of acting has less of an impact on War Horse than in other plays. War Horse is a brilliant, even magical, display of theatrical stagecraft rather than being a vehicle for actors.
The horses, birds and an adorable goose, were created by the world-renown Handspring Puppet Company based in Capetown, South Africa. It takes three people to work each horse – Joey and his equine companion Topthorn – roles referred to as Head, Heart and Hind. The horse is constructed as a large, see-through, sturdy, net shell with dangling legs. Heart and Hind are inside the shell, while Head walks outside.
The marvel is how lifelike the actors make the horses look through details of movement. A head toss, a body ripple, a switch of the tail, the nervous prancing. The actors also provide the horse’s realistic sound palette. It is absolutely mesmerizing to watch three actors and a costume become so life-like as to make one believe that they are real horses. This alone is reason to by a ticket. Toby Sedgwick is credited as director of movement and horse choreography, while four members of Handspring also get direction nods. Regardless of who did what, they have collectively produced a grand theatrical illusion. My one quibble is that I wanted the cavalry charge to be more exciting – to really race across the stage, rather than miming movement in a fixed position.
The official stage directors are Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. They carry manipulation of props a step further. Cast members, for example, portray the mud of the battlefields. They hold brown, filigree material against the horses’ legs, that then have to strain to free themselves from the grip of the clay to find a foothold. The cast also runs out the barbed wire of No Man’s Land. The revolving stage helps with scene changes by bringing different set pieces into view in rapid sequence, such as Albert and David’s trench. And let’s not forget the gigantic amy tank that bears down on men and horses.
The video components are masterful. For example, the mostly black and white animation and project design, by a company called 59 Productions, replicates the blasting fire of machine guns and the explosive flashes of a cannon barrage through a thunderous light and sound show. In more quiet times, Rae Smith’s drawings on the overhead screen depict bucolic farm fields or country houses. They look like illustrations from a book, which suits the mood. Smith is also responsible for the sets and costumes. Paule Constable has gone for suitably dim and atmospheric lighting. The combination of tape and live music works very well – eerie and disturbing electronica in the first instance, hymns and folksongs in the latter. The music, songs and sound (by Adrian Sutton, John Tams and Christopher Shutt) provide both narration and a cinematic, musical backdrop.
In the final analysis, War Horse, in terms of production values, is simply one of the greatest works of theatrical imagery every created for the stage.
War Horse, adapted by Nick Stafford from the novel by Michael Morpurgo, (starring Alex Furber and Patrick Galligan, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris), Princess of Wales Theatre, in an open run since Feb. 28, 2012.
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