In planning our trip to London, my friend and I succumbed to the whirlwind of hype surrounding The New London Theatre’s War Horse. Emphatically urged by trusted family friends, whose passionate gushing was backed by glowing reviews, we figured that this play must not be missed. But a common problem with highly recommended shows–restaurants, movies, anything–can be that the surrounding enthusiasm rouses expectations that far exceed what the experience can actually offer.
This was not the case with War Horse.
Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, this theatrical adaptation by Tom Morris is a true testament to that primitive, spiritual bond between humans and animals. It recounts the story of a boy, Albert, and his beloved horse Joey during World War I. But let’s be honest. Tear-jerking narratives about the unshakeable love between a kid and his one-of-a-kind animal friend are all too familiar (Lassie, anyone?), and War Horse is no different, following the recycled formula of boy grows up with horse, army buys horse, boy dedicates his life to finding horse. With all this in mind, one may rightfully assume that this show treads dangerously close to sickening cliché. However, this production portrays the story so purely and so sincerely that one cannot help but become completely enthralled.
What sets this show apart from anything I’ve ever seen is the use of puppetry. And mind you, this is no Sesame Street, Avenue Q ordeal. These sculptural works of art, created by the Handspring Puppet Company, were utilized brilliantly, elevating the art of puppetry to new standards. The puppeteers were outstanding, and they completely embodied the spirit of their charges, breathing life into the wooden framework. It required three puppeteers to operate one horse: one in a forward bend, the back legs attached to his; another manning the front legs and upper torso; and the third maneuvering the neck and head. Their motions were flawlessly in sync, and each one produced various grunts and whinnies that all together created a living, breathing being. Every detailed movement–a twitch of the ear, a cock of the head, a flit of the tail–revealed the puppets’ personality and emotions. You could read the animals’ feelings both on the faces of the lead puppeteers as well as through the gestures of the puppet; it was a remarkable osmosis of feeling, the humans and puppets blending seamlessly. One favorite character of mine was a cantankerous goose, whose mischievous personality (enhanced by the puppeteer’s facial expressions) offered much needed comical relief . I have never seen such a beautiful portrayal of puppetry, and this show has altered any doubtful preconceptions I may have had about that art form.
Another praiseworthy component of this show was the ultimate sense of ensemble, not only among the trios of puppeteers, but also between the puppets and live actors. The relationship between Albert, (portrayed brilliantly by Luke Treadaway), and Joey is so pure that as an audience member, I completely forgot that Joey isn’t an actual horse. Treadaway’s performance was very convincing, and he interacted with the puppet as he would a fellow actor, reading the horses’ emotions and responding to them truthfully. In all honesty, I feel that it was one of the strongest relationships in the whole show, surpassing those established only between humans.
The deceptively complex set design was also very effective. Stop-motion-animation sketches of horses and landscapes were projected onto an overhead screen, paralleling the emotional action of the play. The black box set up called for a number of portable set pieces, which catered to the versatile settings in the show (from rural England to the battlegrounds of World War I), and offered a variety of stage pictures. A spotlight of a horse on a bare stage beautifully contrasted a shrapnel-ridden war zone, and a rotating platform infused certain tableaux moments with dramatic impact.
Overall, this production is a rare breed. It defies the curse of over-hype, as my expectations were not only met, but surpassed, and breathes new life into a tired story line. It is a fine example of how theatre can touch an audience, as half of the people around me (including myself) were discretely sniffling at one point or another. The innovative puppetry broke new ground for the art form, redefining the emotional range of a manipulated wooden creature. As we left the theatre, we were handed postcards printed with a picture of the cast, holding a banner that reads “Vote For War Horse.” It refers to the 2010 Olivier Awards, for which the play is nominated for Most Popular Show, and the public votes to decide the winner. Well, after watching the show, I feel that they have no need to campaign for the win–with a performance like that, they’ve sure secured my vote.