Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Friday, April 20, 2018

wh2-355_War-HorseA scene from the National Theatre of Great Britain production of "War Horse" (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

NEW YORK – "War Horse," a new play from London at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Playhouse, is a critic-proof audience pleaser, as well as a two-handkerchief weeper.Earlier this month, it won a Tony Award for best play and five other Tonys.

A brilliantly theatrical spectacle, it echoes several vastly popular family entertainments, like "National Velvet," Old Yeller" and even the musical "Cats." It is a simple story of a boy, Albert Narracott (Seth Numrich), and his beloved horse Joey. We first see Joey as a foal and then as a fully grown horse, who at the start of World War I is heartbreakingly sold to a cavalry regiment heading for France.

A program note informs us that this was a common occurrence and that a total of eight million horses died during World War I. One million horses like Joey were shipped to France to be used by the British and only 62,000 returned to Great Britain. All of this was pretty much for naught since by 1914 war horses were antediluvian and machine guns were used in most engagements along with new trench warfare devices like barbed wire, tanks and poison gas.

What makes the "War Horse" unique and theatrical is that all the horses are portrayed by extraordinary life-sized puppets from the Handsprung Puppet Co. of Cape Town, South Africa. Magnificently designed by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, they are brought realistically alive by an expert team of puppeteers, a fact that tends to dwarf anything else that happens on stage. By play’s end, you’ll be so mesmerized by these puppet horses that you will wish you had filled your pockets with sugar cubes as a reward for their artful performances. Besides Joey, there are three other puppet horses on stage: Coco, Heine and the towering 7-foot-tall Tophorn.

"War Horse" is based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 British children’s book and has been adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford. It began as a Christmas show at the National Theatre and proved so popular that it moved to the West End for an extended run.

A film version of "War Horse" that uses real horses has been completed by Steven Spielberg and is set to be released in December.

As a play, "War Horse" chases after greatness, which it never really achieves. The main fault is Mr. Stafford’s flat adaptation, which uses every old-fashioned trick in Playwriting 101 without adding anything really inspired or poetic to Mr. Morpurgo’s basic children’s storybook. This is particularly noticeable in Act Two, in which he strings together a series of melodramatic battle-related scenes that all seem to end on one note: bathos.

You cannot blame the play’s excellent designers, Rae Smith (sets, costumes and drawings) and Paule Constable (lighting); or its expert directors, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, who use all the contributing arts of the stage – music, song, dance, projections and drawings, plus even a charming, disruptive goose puppet – to keep "War Horse" from becoming moribund.

Yet, in the end, it is the outstanding horse puppets, especially those depicting Joey’s saga with Albert, that win the audience over and capture its heart. By play’s end, most playgoers are moved to tears or are sobbing – so much so that I was afraid I would need a lifeboat to get me out of the theater.