Last night I saw the National Theatre’s Production of War Horse at the Princess of Wales here in Toronto. Based on the best-selling novel by Michael Morpurgo and inspiration for the recent film (my review here), War Horse is a steady and episodic tale of the love between a horse and his boy amidst the turmoil of the Great War.
Raised from a foal by Devon farmboy Albert, Joey grows spirited and special: a plough horse even though a natural, thorough-bred hunter, and a constant companion to his adoring master. Albert’s oft-drunk father Ted breaks a promise to his son and sells Joey to Major Nicholls when the bells toll and the outbreak of England’s war against Germany commences. Joey finds himself on both sides of the lines in France and Albert, underage, runs to join the conflict in hopes to find his Devon Yeomanry and bring his horse back with him. A powerful and resonating tale as old as time: of an animal/human bond forged greater still by absence, War Horse is a touching story.
The play itself is magnificent, ultimately because the staging is so unique and the horse puppetry (propelled by humans at first visible through the skeletal structure of the horses until they blend behind the camouflage of imagination) is so excellent. The sets are simplistically haunting with a scrap of paper: as if torn from a novel or a page of Major Nicholl’s sketchbook spans the back of the proscenium arch matching the action of the players with sketches evoking Devon’s spires and farm fields and, later, the tyranny of the Somme and the action in No Man’s Land. The action of the story is often interrupted by a wandering minstrel who sings old Northern tunes while playing a fiddle. While this was effective when backed with the harmonized chorus of the cast, it was sometimes off-setting and distracting: as you would settled into the quiet action and disturbance of a scene only to be drawn out by a repeated ditty. The “canned” music which offers soundtracked canvas to the story can also seem a little melodramatic: sometimes silence is indeed better.
The play develops Joey and the physically grander Topthorn as living, breathing characters whose interactions with humans form the crux of the story. Indeed, it is through the eyes of the horses forced into War that humanity is exposed: from both sides uniting to untie Joey from barb-wire to the young French girl Emilie and the conflicted Calvary-officer Friedrich Mueller bonding over their common interest in the horses.
Why War Horse works so well as a story is that it takes a bird’s eye (or horse’s eye) view of the War while evoking all sides of the War in an unbiased and gentle way: there are characters from torn France, Germany and England all moved by their exasperated situations and extracting the emotional investment of the audience. Often, the horses are the common denominator in this bleak world of bloodshed and horror.
As mentioned, the staging is really quite remarkable: some scenes, including the trek of the soldiers and the horses bobbing along with a multitude of ships from Dover to Calais across the channel is artistically rendered and quite breathtaking. The pulsing nearness of a life-sized tank and the ricocheting sounds of artillery and machine guns are also present and alive. The audience is more drawn in by the usage of the entire theatre as a space for action: the horses and players widely use the aisles to run back and forth spreading the canvas of the stage to the entire theatre. I sat orchestra just right of center and had a beautiful view aligning the action; but still far enough back to not see every wire and detail.
The story itself is an exercise in simple magnificence: farm boy far from home trying to reconnect a severed bond between himself and his spunky horse. The end of the story will move anyone to tears and the well-familiar lump in your throat will recur throughout the action.
This is a wonderful piece of theatre, expertly staged. Further, it is a lovely homage to a hard-to-tell novel by one of the strongest writers in contemporary children’s literature.