War Horse

Written on March 7th, 2012

War Horse

Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford
In association with the Handspring Puppet Company
Original direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
National Theatre of Great Britain Production with Mirvish
Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto
Opened February 28, with tickets on sale to September 30, 2012
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Horses star in World War I Epic

The horses are the stars of the show in War Horse, currently running at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. The audience is in awe of the large animals, hooves pounding across the stage and down the theatre aisles. We actually have to stop and remind ourselves – these are not real horses – it takes three actors to bring these giant puppets to life.

I confess that I wasn’t an immediate fan of the horse puppets. Joey, the horse at the centre of the story, first comes on stage as a young foal. Because he’s small, the operators aren’t underneath him as they are with the full-grown horses. So the hind leg operator just followed the foal around, making the legs trot and gallop. Having worked at a riding stable as a kid, I was very uncomfortable with this image. No one stands close behind a foal: those hooves can fly up without warning and pack a powerful punch.

But once Joey grows up, there are two operators underneath the horse frame and one walking or running along beside the horse, operating his head. Soon, he became invisible, as did the human legs under the horse. The swish of the tail, the toss of the mane, the prancing hooves, and the heaving torso as the horse breathes are amazingly realistic. It is truly riveting to see a full grown man jump on the horse’s back and ride him.

The horses are life-sized, carefully crafted frames. Despite seeing the frame and the fake mane and tail, they seem so real. But before I was totally convinced, I wondered why they didn’t cover the frame with a hide-like fabric and then the horses would have been completely believable from the beginning. I assume the audience needs to know they are fake so that we can truly appreciate the operators’ work.

War Horse originally opened in London, England in 2007 and moved to the West End in 2009. Then it opened on Broadway last year, where it took the Tony for the best play along with 4 other Tony awards. The Toronto production opened February 28.

The story was originally told in a novel for youth, with Joey, the horse, as the narrator. It’s a wonderful tale about a boy named Albert raising and training a horse, only to have his father sell it to the cavalry to fight in World War I. Albert follows Joey off to war, but the two go through many of the horrors of war before they are reunited.

On stage, the war is depicted with stunning devastation. A strip of torn paper, matching the paper bearing a sketch of Joey that Albert carries with him, hangs across the stage. Various images of Europe in 1914 and the destruction of war are projected onto the paper. The horse puppets, lighting, projected images and costumes put the audience directly into World War I. They make this show magnificent and compelling.

However, on occasion, the actors didn’t live up to the high standards of this production, and my main concern is with their voices. Accents were used intermittently, and often difficult to understand. British, French and German accents seemed to fade in and out for no reason – at first I thought they ceased using an accent when there was a language barrier and other people on stage weren’t supposed to understand the speaker’s language, but that was not consistent. As well, almost everyone shouted all the time. Of course, in a war zone, one needs to shout. But again, my early work at a riding stable tells me that one doesn’t yell around horses, and in fact when training a young horse, you get a lot further talking softly.

Nevertheless it is still a remarkable play and I would highly recommend it for the poignant story (take along your Kleenex) and the fantastic production value with the amazing horses.

If you’re interested in how the actors bring the horses to life – The Globe and Mail posted this sketch of how the horses work:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/theatre/horsepower-the-war-horse-puppets-and-puppeteers/article2342366/?from=2342124

War Horse continues at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto. Tickets are available www.mirvish.com or call TicketKing at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.

Borrowing an idea from Broadway, Mirvish is now offering Lottery Tickets. Enter your name in a draw 2 hours before the performance, and then at 1.5 hours before the performance, they will pick names. Those lucky people get to purchase a seat for only $25. (Usual ticket prices range from $70 to $130.)

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