Arts & Events
I went to London last week to report to you my recommendations on what to see if you’re traveling there for a holiday visit or soon thereafter.
They were commemorating the First World War (1914-18). They have a Remembrance Sunday, and sell poppies as our Vets do. The British spent 4 years in that war rather than the United States’ 8 months of engagement, and the UK lost over a million troops compared to America’s hundred thousand plus, so it’s understandably a bigger deal there. Their leader called it “the war to end war” and our leader called it “the war to make the world safe for democracy,” but there is still confusion about why it was fought.
I bring you this history lesson because it was a most timely occasion to attend the play that has won the Olivier Award (their Tony), and may well win our Tony next year when it comes to Broadway.
Taken from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel, The War Horse has a wealth of themes, any one of which could move your heart: hatred between brothers, an Irish boy’s love for a horse, a mother caught between a drunken husband and a rebellious teenager. It is set against the background of a war that was doubly tragic through a mismatch of technologies: cavalry charges against machine guns, barbed wire, and trenches. And for good measure, it gives us the other side’s perspective: our other protagonist is a German Cavalry Officer.
It is a play that inspires the imagination. It is played on a bare stage with a turntable. Corrals for the horse auction are made by actors with long sticks; later, a few strands of barbed wire are flown in, a door of a hut in Ireland and then France appear, followed by the wagons of war. A scrap of torn paper is the enduring image on the backdrop and an enigmatic hint the outcome. A cappella Irish war shanties serve as interludes. Birds atop long sticks waved by the actors flit about, recalling perhaps the poem by the Canadian war doctor Capt. McCrae: “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses row on row,/ That mark our place; and in the sky/ The larks, still bravely singing, fly/ Scarce heard amid the guns below.”
In that play that most inspires soldiers to war glory, Shakespeare begins “Henry V” with a longing to move the imagination: “O for a Muse of fire/ that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention… to behold the swelling scene. / Think when we talk of horses, that you see them/ Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth; …can this cockpit hold/ The vasty fields of France?” (N. B. freely edited).
The Hand-Spring Puppet Company delivers the horses. They give us a full size horse—rideable—with every whinny, nicker, and flick of the tail exact so that every equine nuance is captured. (My first wife owned a Morgan, and I’d watch him for hours, so I adjudge me a good judge).
The horses are machines brought to life, each with three handlers who move them as the Japanese move their full-size puppets in the Bunraku theatre. The performers who operate the steeds disappear in plain sight. It is bloody stunning. The actors—well, they are British, and thereby sort of have a leg up on American actors by dint of culture and training.
At the curtain call of this moving, anti-war play, the audience rose as if one organism in the sort of ovation one usually witnesses in Italian Opera houses. And this young lad had tears streaming and wept without being able to speak for twenty minutes thereafter. Luckily, the Hotel Russell bar serves a first-class Gin-and-It.
Now in its third year of production, The War Horse has moved from the National Theatre to the West End. It will soon open at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York City with tickets on sale March 1. It has been also made into a film directed by Steven Spielberg with a release date of a year hence.
The War Horse plays at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane, London
Booking into 2011
Adapted by Nick Stafford from the novel by Michael Morpurgo
Directors: Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Designer/Drawings: Rae Smith
Puppet Design and Fabrication: Basil Jones & Adrian Kohler
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Director of Movement and Horse Choreography: Toby Sedgwick
Puppetry Directors: Basil Jones & Adrian Kohler