In honor of puppetry’s moment, I’m resurrecting this review from April 14, 2011 of one of the best examples of the puppetry arts on Broadway.
War Horse” is a touching love story between a boy and his horse, it is a shocking war story, but above all, it is a breathtaking work of stagecraft, employing theatrical ingenuity at the service of feeling.
On the eve of World War I, a British farmer buys a foal at auction simply because his more successful brother wants it. His wife is aghast at the expense. His son Albert is enchanted and names the horse Joey. Albert’s drunken father eventually insists that Joey earn his keep, so Albert trains this half-thoroughbred to plow. When the war starts, Albert’s father sells Joey behind Albert’s back to the British Army, and Joey becomes the cavalry horse for Lieutenant James Nicholls.
Meanwhile, Albert, just 16 years old, runs away from home to join the army in hopes of reuniting with Joey. They both struggle through the horror of war.
The story is based on the 1982 young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo, who had been inspired to write it after learning that, in addition to the 10 million men who died during World War I, there were countless millions of horses who were killed as well. They were casualties of the foolish use of 19th century means to fight the first modern 20th century war – horses pitted against barbed wire and machine guns.
The first of the many intelligent choices in the National Theatre of Great Britain’s production of “War Horse” is its adaptation by Nick Stafford, whose many little changes allow for a more streamlined and plausible drama, while still keeping its sense of wonder.
That wonder is made palpable by a design team that could not be better. Most noticeable is the puppetry of the Handspring Puppet Company, which brings a range of subtle gestures and expressions to what is after all just a construction of wood, leather, cloth and gears, using a group of three manipulators (the more proper term for puppeteers) who are in full view of the audience and are wearing either period costumes or dressed completely in black. Joey nuzzles, snorts, rears up in fear or outrage, gallops proudly with a (human) rider atop. Other horses, a goose, and even vultures are also brought to life in ways that are more effective than if the actual animals had been brought to the Vivian Beaumont. Puppets are also used to depict some of the soldiers in startling and memorable ways.
The puppets are only part of the integrated design, each element of which contributes to the magic, including Paule Constable’s lighting, and Rae Smith’s sets, costumes and drawings. Also adding immeasurably to the effect is the music by Adrian Sutton, and the many English folk songs.
The 35 actors (a new cast for the presentation at Lincoln Center, all of them American) are themselves in many ways collaborators in the design; some hold poles in one scene that become the fences corralling the animals in the next. Lieutenant Nicholls is an artist, always sketching in a book. The drawings that are on the backdrop, which looks like a huge ragged piece of paper, thus fit into the narrative. At least initially, they are meant to be his drawings, but what we see on that backdrop explodes (sometimes literally), becoming varied, inventive, often stunning, and always enhancing rather than distracting from what else is happening on stage.
The stagecraft enables scenes of war that would simply be nowhere near as effective on the screen. A shell is discharged, flies through the air, and hits a mounted cavalry officer with a flash of harsh light, and the sudden suspension of time — and then the officer flies backwards, disappearing backstage. It is a scene whose purpose is not to wow audiences with its technical artistry, but to bring home the horror. The actors of course do far more than just help with the design. Indeed, directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris allow the actors to take the time when it is necessary in a scene. Some of the most memorable are the simple ones in which Albert, played by the pitch-perfect Seth Numrich, tries to win over the foal, and then train the full-size horse that Joey becomes.
Steven Spielberg is at work on a film of “War Horse,” but one that sounds as if it will be minus much of the magic of the play at Lincoln Center: The horses won’t be puppets.