Sunday, February 26, 2012


The horse is running. It is dark and the place is strange and dark clouds hug the ground and there is thunder and lightning and the wire that hurts .. The place is No Man's Land in France during World War I; the thunder is artillery the lightning muzzle flashes, the wire is barbed ... The horse is Joey, trying to race to home and freedom. He is the War Horse
This weekend Collette and I saw the Mirvish Theatre production of War Horse at the Princess of Whales Theatre. This is the play based upon the children's book by Michael Morpurgo and upon which the Steven Spielberg film is based. We have not seen the movie because we knew we would be seeing the play. After all, the stage play predates the movie.
Due to the publicity surrounding the movie I was familiar with the subject matter of the movie: A young man's horse is "drafted" into the British calvary during World War I and he joins the army to get the horse back. Horses were indeed used during World War I, the last time calvaries of any sized were used in a martial conflict. Like the war itself it was a terrible waste, as horses struggled against barbed wire, machine guns and tanks
The war horse is called Joey and he is a major character in the story. He is not Disneyfied, he does not have a voice but by his actions and the reactions of the humans who meet him, we get to know Joey's character and we come to love him.
Albert is the British farm boy who comes to own Joey; it is a relationship that never should have happened. Joey is a hunter, a riding horse, useless on a farm so in order to keep him, Albert teaches Joey how to wear a harness and pull a plow, a skill that later becomes useful. But through circumstance Joey is sold to an officer in the British army and shipped to France. This happens at the beginning of the war and Joey is assured that Joey will be returned to him "in a few months" Of course this does not happen and both Joey and Albert go on a series of adventures that test their courage and affect the lives of civilians and soldiers alike
Like any contemporary stage production, the story of War Horse is told using a variety of techniques. The play is not a musical but two Celtic musicians, women, appear on stage with violin and accordian and use what appear to be period songs to add to the story; they are like the play's Greek chorus and the voice of Tatjana Cornij  sometimes floats across the theatre filled with longing and sadness and emotion. The play opens with the Tatjana and her fellow musician Melanie Doane as they sing a refrain about people being remembered by their deeds; the entire company appears out of the shadows to join in the singing and we meet Joey as a foal, and the officer who would one day ride him, sketching the Devonshire countryside.
I can't talk about War Horse without talking about they horses. They are puppets, manipulated by a team of puppeteers, two of whom work inside the shell. One person operates the head, bending the neck, twitching the ears, shaking the mane. They are wonderful and wonderfully performed. In that way that good theatre can operate, you soon forget the people and see only the horse.
War Horse is an anti war story in the best possible way; there are no speeches on the evil of war, we are just presented with the evidence thereof; families torn apart, young man left bleeding on battle fields, horses charged into machine gun fire, horses dying.
Most of the story is told from the point of view of British characters but we also see it from the eyes of French peasants whose land is destroyed and through the eyes of a German officer, Freidrich, whose love for horses and hatred of senseless death leads him to make a radical decision. Partick Galligan imparts this character with humour, pathos and a weary desperation at the insanity of it all
This, is of course, an emotional play. It is the love story of a boy and a animal companion and it is a story of how humans and horses alike are used up and destroyed by political powers beyond their understanding. Albert and Joey and Friedrich become heroes through circumstance; they are all travellers caught up in a nightmare journey, all of them just want to go home and their single minded desire to do so lead them to perform feats that others see as heroic.

All of the stage production works here: From the horse and animal puppets (there is a white farm goose that is funny and terrifying in the ways only a farm goose could be), to the lighting and smoke effects that recreate the hallucinogenic effects of battle, to the scary and surreal tank, to the sound design which included the beautiful music as well as the wickering and screaming of the horses, to a backsplash screen that helped establish location and time ... it is all masterfully done. At times the staging and characters break off the stage into the audience; at one point one of the singers appeared in our balcony and a group of soldiers were staged at the front of the auditorium, just below the stage to represent troops in their trenches.
There is a symmetry to the story which I always appreciated. Part of that comes from story points, such as Joey's plowing skills serving him later as well as the music, with the play closing with the same song which it opened. In many ways it is a tragedy; people and horses die, their lives wasted, worlds and relationships are torn asunder .. but some constants remain: Love of family, bonding friends and comrades and the promise of a boy to his horse, made on the fields of England and cemented in the trenches of France.
Each of them embark on a journey, both of them lose much but gain much more, both of them find their courage, and both of them come home

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