Before I tell you anything else, I want the skimmers rather than readers, and glancers rather than skimmers, to know one thing. Whether you are theater fans, whether you like puppetry or not, whether you care about horses, the show War Horse is something you cannot afford to miss. Take it from an longtime drama critic and even earlier theater lover, this show is unique. You may be royally entertained, you may be fascinated by how it is done, you may be moved to tears by it, or all three of the above. The one thing you cannot be is unthankful for seeing it.
For one thing, it is truly sui generis, unlike anything you have seen before and, most likely, anything you will ever see. It is a kind of life experience, like eating your first chocolate, first falling in love, or fist winning a major award. It is also a learning experience: about how important horses can be, if not to you, to countless fellow humans, about how much mankind owes to them.
In the dreadful First World War, ten million people perished, as did eight million horses. Of the many more than million English ones on the European front, only sixty-odd thousand returned alive. Horses figured highly effectively in warfare throughout history, until the coming of barbed wire, machineguns, poison gas, shrapnel, tanks, and airplanes. Even when not in actual combat, horses pulled canons, supplies, and various equipment. But all this came to an end. The Great War was the greatest, saddest, and last sacrifice of these peace-loving animals in the service of murderous man.
Michael Morpurgo, a prolific and popular British children’s book author, wrote the 1982 novel on which the show is based; Nick Stafford, a noted playwright and screenwriter, adapted it; and from 1907 on, it has been and still is a huge London hit. The life-size horse puppets and their handling are the work of Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. The staging is by Britain’s Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. All triumph.
The American cast of 35, with much doubling, prove, equally flawless portraying humans and horses –two persons on the inside and one outside, leading. The wonder of it all is that we are made to believe that these elegant puppets are really horses; they snort and whinny, nuzzle and rear up, canter and charge to equine perfection, and we completely overlook, as with Japan’s bunraku, the handlers. Yet their contribution is immense—especially when we consider that they communicate with one another wordlessly, and never make eye contact with the audience.
The story is touching and really simple, good for children and adults alike. Teen-aged Albert Narracott (Seth Numrich), loves the horse he names Joey, bought as a foal by his hardhearted father, Ted (Boris McGiver), to be sold later at a profit, without Albert’s knowledge, to the wartime army. Joey is a hunter, but to keep him from immediate sale, Albert is allowed one week to train him to become a worker, an undertaking requiring tremendous effort from both boy and beast. Greedy relatives tried to wrest the horse from Ted, but were foiled by Albert with the help of his brave, supportive mother, Roe (Alyssa Bresnahan).
When war breaks out, Joey is shipped to France, to be ridden by a friendly British officer (Stephen Plunkett) who is soon shot off-him. The army makes formidable demands on Joey, in steady competition with another valiant horse, Topthorn. Albert, though under age, manages to enlist and goes looking for his beloved companion. Meanwhile Joey is captured by the Germans and becomes the protégé of a sympathetic officer, Friedrich Mueller (Peter Hermann), who, however, cannot ultimately hang on to him. There is much more both before and after this, which you must experience for yourselves.
Transitions, as from Joey the foal to Joey the stallion, are brilliantly handled, as is the progress from peaceable Devonshire to war-torn France. Of great help is Rae Smith’schief piece of scenery, a large cloud bank overhanging a fair part of the stage. Onto it are projected sometimes static, sometimes moving, images of place, time, and action. Spectacularly poetic, and later dramatic, lighting is by Paule Constable. Two singers who perform folksonglike ballads enrich the atmosphere. The fine music, at other times for orchestra, is by Adrian Sutton. Toby Sedgwick is credited as “director of movement & horse sequences.”
The ending is an unsurpassable climax, but neither it nor anything before indulges in unearned sentiment. I myself never particularly cared for horses, puppets, or (in the non-Brechtian sense) epic theater, but War Horse has made me an ardent supporter of all three. That should be meaningful to anyone with an iota of horse sense.
Photos by and courtesy of Joan Marcus.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.