— The cast of the national tour of War Horse.
War Horse has been a phenomenon for the past few years, selling out in London and New York (where it won the Tony Award for Best Play), and being turned into a hit movie by Steven Spielberg. A touring production, here for a week, presents the National Theatre of Great Britain production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, in Vancouver for the first time. The results are, well, mixed.
Adapted from an English children’s book, War Horse tells the story of a young man and his horse in early twentieth century England. When the Great War breaks out, our hero Albert’s ne’er-do-well father sells the thoroughbred stallion Joey to a British officer, who proceeds to get himself killed during an insane cavalry charge against German machine guns. Underage Albert subsequently joins up and gets sent to France to fight, all the while hoping to find his beloved horse.
The rest of the play tracks Albert’s and Joey’s parallel journeys through the war, with much theatrical carnage, until the two are finally, miraculously, tearfully reunited at the war’s end.
The plot is relatively predictable with many briefly sketched characters along the way: Albert’s father and long-suffering mother, the nasty rich farmer and his son who compete with poor Albert’s family for Joey, various British and German soldiers and officers, a young French girl and her mother caught in the middle of the horror.
Besides Albert (Michael Wyatt Cox), a few performances stand out: Maria Elena Ramirez as his mother, Andrew Long as a classic British sergeant, Andrew May as a sympathetic German officer.
There are also a good many impressive pyrotechnics—sound and lighting effects that re-create something of the nightmarish experience of trench warfare, the bombardments, the gas, and the vulnerable flesh of men and horses that fell victim to the insanity of a war that was bloodier and more pointless than most. A scene in which Joey gets tangled up in barbed wire in no man’s land is particularly powerful. Unfortunately, the sound of the miked voices of the actors is so muddy that much of their accented dialogue is lost.
But this show is really about the horses: Joey as a colt, Joey as a full-grown stallion, and the alpha-stallion Topthorn alongside which Joey spends the war. These are creations of the Handspring Puppet Company, brilliantly articulated life-size frames, each operated by two actors beneath the horse’s body and a third alongside its head. The performers make those equine bodies move so subtly, so realistically, that you quickly forget that these are puppets—even though you never lose sight of the actors—and you come to care more for them than for the human characters. A goose running around the stage, operated by an actor as if it were a lawnmower, becomes another audience favourite.
Albert’s relationship with Joey is poignant and moving. His reunion with his horse is given more stage time and emotional weight than his reunion with his parents—and properly so. The theatrical heart of War Horse is not the war but the horse.