Based on Michael Morpurge’s Novel, from the National Theatre of Great Britain.
Seeing War Horse in its current production is a powerful experience — the kind one has to be glad one had and feel concerned for everyone who hasn’t had the chance. “You must see it” I have said in the three days since I did, to all my friends.
It’s well known that it’s a story about a boy and a horse and that the horses in the play are represented by wonderful puppets — “puppets” sounds small — think horse size.
Without seeing it, what’s harder to know are the elements of sight and sound that convey the passage of time, travel across the earth, and what it looks like and feels like to be everywhere from the English countryside to trench warfare and bombardments in France during World War I, and how these affect the humans and horses we come to love — especially the horses. All told, War Horse, as my friend puts it directly, is one of the great anti-war masterpieces. Some have found the story sentimental: but a great anti-war masterpiece isn’t sentimental.
Billy Narracott, son of an English farm family, raises from a colt the horse he’s named Joey until, at the start of World War I, the horse is sequestered by the cavalry. Broken-hearted at the loss, and fearful for Joey’s safety, Billy runs away to become a soldier so he can search for Joey across the wartime landscape of France. We follow Billy’s and Joey’s independent experiences with the brutal war — Billy never wavering in his determination to save Joey, and Joey’s minute-by-minute will to survive.
Billy carries in his pocket a sketch of Joey — torn from a friend’s drawing pad — the way Billy’s army buddies carry photos of their girlfriends. Against the dark backdrop of the play is a long, narrow “window,” the torn and ragged edged sketch paper magnified — and through this window we see the realities of place, time, and action that surround Billy, and Joey, and every other creature, sometimes as filmed bombardments, sometimes as charcoal sketches of French rooftops. The torn papers, small and large, express torn-up lives, as well as the fragmented view of war any one individual has. War itself becomes a character in War Horse.
Frantic from the violence and din, Joey attempts to jump a barbed-wire barrier, but the coiled wire traps his legs like the tentacles of an octopus. While the opposing sides, English and Germans, each debate among themselves in their separate trenches how to get hold of the horse without being killed by the other side, Joey fights the wire, becoming more and more entrapped, brought to a tangled standstill, exhausted, head bowed, on a raised platform that is ground level, the men being below in trenches.
Elevated, isolated, in a glaring spotlight, Joey recalls — he sums up — all martyrs, including Christ on the Cross, the barbed wire Joey’s crown of thorns, an association heightened by the crown of roses a little French girl had worn in one bright moment shortly before. The human actors represent individual lives: Joey universalizes experience.
Born of a draft horse and a “hunter” — a thoroughbred — Joey combines the capacity for hard, repetitive work and the spirit of daring and outstanding achievement. Billy raised Joey as a hunter but — because of a bad bet made by his father — was forced to teach him to pull the plough. How this figures in Joey’s story once he’s gone to war is a breath-taking turn of the plot (so good its makes you say inside, “Thank you, Author!”) — and it’s also part of Joey’s transformation into a universal symbol. Joey survives: Topthorn, a pure thoroughbred — and so less universal — doesn’t.
Joey, Topthorn and the other horses that seem so real are not “realistic” in the purely visual sense: we see through their cage-like structures and moving joints while visible humans on-stage adjust their limbs and bring their backs to quiver as they snort over the oats, or carry a cavalryman. But the designers have so understood the fundamental truths of horses that they are as much characters — or more so — than the human actors.
It’s not possible to separate the impact of the play from this particular production but so what if you’re deciding whether to see this War Horse, that we’re privileged to have at the moment in NYC.
War Horse plays at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in NYC’s Lincoln Center through January 6, 2013. Click for more information about the play, its history, and the astoundingly talented team that created the production.