From the War Horse on Stage website:
War Horse, based on the beloved novel by Michael Morpurgo, is a powerfully moving and imaginative drama, filled with stirring music and magnificent artistry. South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company brings breathing, galloping, full-scale horses to life on the stage — their flanks, hides and sinews built of steel, leather and aircraft cables.Experience the emotional journey that charges through the battlefields of history straight to hearts of audiences around the world.
I’m not sure what I expected of the show. I hadn’t seen the movie, or read the book, so the lady at Will Call, where we picked up our tickets, made sure to let us know that there would be some loud scenes of war. Set during World War I, she wondered if that would bother Thor? Thor asked, “Will we get to see guns?!” Boy child.
The story is simple and the stage was spare. The stage set is an open area (so that the massive horses could move freely) with a black, backing screen with a slash of cream across at a height. It looks like a piece of a page torn out of a book, pasted across the “sky”, and it becomes the sky, and the earth, and the war–many things as pencil sketch drawings fill in the gaps between imagination and prop.
Here a window drops down, and here a door, and on the screen you see the scribbled thatch roof of an English farmhouse. Here stand the cast/crew with fence posts, and on the screen you see the rolling hills of the English countryside. Here sit the officers astride their horses, and on the small slash of screen you see the battlements behind them.
I was impressed by the way they utilized the screen. In one scene, after an entire half of the play in pencil sketched, black and white, the screen blooms with the bright red blood of British soldiers in the field, and as the splatters spread, they bleed into the shapes of poppies. It was simple, and understated, and intense.
This was Thor’s first theater experience, so as we were leaving, I asked what he thought. Among his delight at the horses and the tanks, he said, “I really liked that screen. That was really, really good.” So, it was well done enough that a jaded adult was impressed by it, and a 7-year-old neophyte could grasp it’s purpose and make an emotional connection with the scenery.
War is hell on both sides, and this play did a great job of humanizing the soldiers. Sure, there are the caricatures you expect, but ultimately, what you see are human beings who have the same hopes, dreams, thoughts, and feelings, and whose only differences are in the styles of their uniforms, and the accents they bear.
I watched the year-markers ticking by on the screen and thought, “My grandfather wasn’t born yet. My great-grandmother would have been pregnant now. Boom would have been an infant. Boom might just have been learning to crawl. What kind of world was it for them? How uncertain?” It was a different war, for sure. What does a cavalry do against machine guns? What do horses do against barbed wire?
One of the themes of the play is the progression of mankind. I love that in this day of 3-D animation, CGI, and surround sound, I got to watch this simple, beautiful, unadorned show.
Every show has its challenges, and there were a few things that stood out to me (and to the man behind me, who was cataloging aloud), but none of them were significant enough to name. The cast performed very well, and the stage crew and puppeteers–you just have to see it to understand why they are so amazing.
I have been telling everyone about the horses in the show. Again, puppets, and puppets worked by three, full-sized adults each. I can’t explain to you how these grown people blended into nothing against the flick of a tail, or the shake of a head, or the stamping of a hoof, but they did. In one scene, two of the horses challenge and chase one another, rearing up and bucking in a choreographed dance that looked like equine ballet. In slow motion. Y’all, they did it in slow motion. And. It. Was. Perfect. It was breathtaking.
So how did my 7-year-old do at his first theater experience?
The play lasts 160 minutes with one 15 minute intermission. We hit the toilets right before taking our seats, so Thor was able to sit through the entire first half of the show–on the edge of his seat, which is where he stayed most of the time.
The second half of the show happened almost 2 hours past his usual bedtime, so I expected him to slouch, fall asleep, or show signs of restlessness. Nope. He did ask me two questions, but those had to do with the plot. He remained upright, engaged, and jumped up to participate in the standing ovation for the cast. He loved it. As well behaved a boy as I have, I give a lot of credit to the production for being so interesting and entertaining that the time flew by. It really felt like just an hour, instead of two and a half.
What I liked best:
- The horses. They could not have been more realistic.
- The story itself.
- The way the screen/backdrop was used.
What Thor liked best:
- The tank.
- The horses.
- The dialog between two soldiers, one British, one German, as they fumble their way through to saving a horse from harm. (Which should tell you how well done and how well acted the scene was!)
5 out of 5 stars