War Horse is one of those theatrical pieces you hear of and think can’t deliver a show to the level of hype that inevitably follows after all the success of the West End show, the Tony winning Broadway production and the motion picture adaptation by Stephen Spielberg. And with a plot like this, about the journey of a horse from birth through his experiences of being an army horse in the first World War, you may be worried that it will be soppy and melodramatic. War Horse is neither of those things.
Our main character, Joey the horse, is at the beginning of the play only a foal. He is bought by a man named Ted in a drunken attempt of upstaging his brother, and becomes the best friend of his son Albert, who trains him and bonds with him. Joey grows to become a large magnificent horse and is eventually sold by Ted to be used as an officer’s horse in the war, much to Albert’s despair. As Joey’s new master dies very early in the war, Albert then decides to follow Joey to war in a desperate attempt to save his horse. The play follows the path of the two characters, one human boy and one exceptional horse, as they both do what they can to survive the war and return home to safety.
I’d urge potential visitors to not see the movie before the stage version as it is most certainly a more harrowing experience to see the plot played out with real horses. But there’s a true magic the puppeteers bring, that while you can see they are not real animals, they feel real in the way they move from the tails to the ears, all the while every sound made feels authentic and genuine, and when you see one of them suffer it breaks your heart. When Joey struggles and suffers, you believe in him as a character despite seeing two people under him controlling his body and legs, and another playing his front and face. Joey forms bonds and aches, and experiences loss and sadness.
It’s not all sad though, there are some wonderful moments that make you smile, particularly in the village with Joey’s owner Albert and his family, with a runaway performance by the family’s goose and its failed attempts to enter the house. The music that moves through the play as part narration and part breather as we move from scene to scene works perfectly and has more a feel of soundtrack and score to it than a musical, laying a foundation rather than demanding too much attention. The sparse staging with props sometimes going out into the audience with bunting over the heads of the first few rows is helped by video background that again, as with much of this play, is subtle and gentle rather than overpowering.
The ensemble are at times part of the set, acting for example as pillars to gates, holding long sticks between them to form a fence and so on. They move effortlessly and without hesitation from being a part of the scenery to a character. At times the actors also appear between the seats in the stalls, while never interacting with the audience or even acknowledging their presence. It brings us as an audience further into their world as they go about their business around us.
Between the magical performances of the puppeteers of Handspring Puppet Company and the strong acting by their more conventional human counterparts, War Horse is a deeply moving experience of war, loss and the innocent love between humans and their animals. It’s a homage to the souls lost in the mess of war, horse or man, civilian or soldier. With showing real characters from both sides, with their dreams and their loves, the reality of war is made almost too real. It’s a painful experience at times and it’s a useful lesson in our life where our war is a thing on the television that doesn’t touch most of us directly in our daily life. The play is at times loud and powerful as it would be in a war zone, but at the same time it’s full of quiet moment and subtle performances that leave space for your own interpretation.
War Horse is a masterpiece of craft, beauty and aching pain. I would advise you to bring tissues.
Review by Tori Jo Lau who you can follow on Twitter @mstorijo
New London Theatre
Parker Street, London WC2B 5PW
Monday 14th January 2013