Monday, September 6, 2010

War Horse, Spielberg, and the wooden O

War Horse (above, a promotional clip that gives some sense of the power of its puppetry) is scheduled for March 2011 on Broadway - and I anticipate a response like the mobbed performances us old-timers remember from the tour of Nicholas Nickleby some twenty-five years ago. The arrival of the National Theatre blockbuster, followed by the much-anticipated residency of the Royal Shakespeare Company later that summer, will no doubt revive the persistent sense that American theatre lags behind its British cousin - indeed, the fact that the RSC is building a facsimile of its own digs in the Park Avenue Armory (below) only reinforces this impression with an added, subliminal message, "Not only do we have to show you Yanks how it's done, but we have to bring our own theatre to do it."

And let's be honest: there's a great deal of truth behind that impression; I admit I haven't seen anything on the American stage for several years that equals the eloquent power of War Horse. No new musical has come close, and even the considerable firepower of August: Osage County seems to flicker in comparison. War Horse isn't perfect - its second half drags a bit, due to a lengthy extension of its pacifist metaphor; but for all of its first half - and of course for its finale - it's just about peerless.

But precisely what is it peerless at? you may ask - Isn't it really just a children's story, a kind of inflated version of "Lassie Come Home"? And what does it have to tell us - that war is horrible? I think we already know that!

These points are well taken, of course; there's little that's thematically novel or striking in War Horse. What is unforgettable about it is not its message but the means of its artistry, and how those means are linked to the primal basis of theatre. To revive a much-repeated phrase, in War Horse, the medium is the message. Its meaning is embedded in its presentation on the stage.

To understand why this is so, ponder (for a moment) the fact that upon seeing the production, Steven Spielberg immediately optioned the book for the silver screen - in fact he's shooting his version right now, on location outside Devon, England (left). But of course he's using real horses, and real soldiers, for what sounds like an equine version of Saving Private Ryan (for his script, he ditched the stage adaptor for the screenwriters of Love, Actually and Billy Elliot). I heard quite a few people discussing the film in the West End theatre where I saw War Horse; they all agreed it simply wouldn't be the same thing as the unforgettable stage version we'd just witnessed.

But what precisely would be missing? For make no mistake, the Spielberg War Horse will be a masterful tearjerker. It will also no doubt be spectacular; I'm sure no expense will be spared in the reconstruction of the No Man's Land between the British and German trenches of World War I, in which the eponymous "war horse," Joey, almost meets his doom. The story will be "brought to life" in a way that will be utterly convincing in every detail. And yet when fans of the theatre piece think of the pushy, obvious sentiment and grandiose illusionism Spielberg is known for, they almost reflexively curl their lips.

Part of this reaction, of course, is testament to the power of understatement - for the National Theatre's War Horse is careful (at least until its finale) to avoid milking its material. The production is intentionally rough around the edges, the characters hard, and hardly lovable - and the bond between boy and horse that is the spine of the play takes its time to develop, and so is all the more believable once it has developed.

All that, of course, may not be evidence of actual artistic virtue but rather a form of canny commercial sophistication, of a type Mr. Spielberg doesn't, and perhaps cannot, share; I'd wager the makers of War Horse knew quite well that sentiment is most savory when it's hard-won. I can only say - give me that kind of commercial sophistication over Spielberg's phony dreamland any day.

No, wait - I can say more (of course). What kept coming back to me during War Horse was the fact that its horse-puppets (designed by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company), though utterly convincing in their incredibly detailed motion, were nevertheless always and obviously puppets - you could see right through their transparent skins, in fact, to the men nestled inside, pulling every lever and turning every gear, and bracing for the moment when some actor or other would leap onto their shoulders for a ride. The "horses" existed in two perceptive "valences," if you will - one as machine, and another as living, breathing - yet imaginary - being.

The same dichotomy prevailed throughout the scenery-free production (the motif of which was rough sketches done by the young hero), although in its circular playing space - its postmodern "wooden O" - War Horse powerfully evoked the vasty fields of France (and England) just as Shakespeare did in Henry V. Indeed, in the famous prologue to that play, the Bard put his finger on the artistic crux of the theatre - "Let us," the Chorus pleads, "ciphers to this great accompt / on your imaginary forces work."

Ah, our imaginary forces - how much more powerful imagination can be than mere illusion! And how powerful, and mysteriously rich, are the sensory experiences we summon from within ourselves! Evocation is so much more potent than illusion, in fact, that the theatre need make no apology for its supposed paucity before the blandishments of cinema. I can believe that Spielberg's War Horse will be shattering, and stunning, and all those other things movies have wanted to be since cinematic history began. But will it stir our imaginations? Somehow I doubt it, because film, at least these days, inevitably strives to impress rather than evoke.

And the engagement of imagination is what theatre will always have "over" the silver screen. Which isn't to say movies can never manage the same trick - but it takes a lot; the movie screen is famously "flat" unless it's goosed along with music, effects, and superb editing and camera placement; unless a director can induce a kind of dream-state in the audience, his film will be stillborn. Oddly enough, truly evocative magic is often conjured in film by simulating the conventions of the theatre - think of Citizen Kane with its deep-focus, stage-like spaces in which the Mercury Theatre actors move; even the jumps between close-up and panorama which we think of as essentially cinematic are actually perceptual outgrowths of Shakespeare's fluid shifts from pageant to soliloquy to aside. (Intriguingly, when War Horse wants to tamp down its evocative wattage, and simply impress us with its carnage, it resorts to slow-motion "cinematic" sequences.)

But why is film so flat-footed next to theatre? Oddly, it may have something to do with the fact that in theatre, the mechanical apparatus - the valence of "actuality" - is always obvious. You can see the strings on the puppets, and the men inside the horse - we are aware of the live presence of the magician, and our connection to him. In movies, by way of contrast, the strings are hidden, and the illusion complete - but this makes the illusion impenetrable, and unengaging; in effect, we have to be lulled to a kind of perceptual sleep to be moved by it, to "accept" its fantasy as our own. But in theatre, we can remain wide awake while dreaming, and that fact makes theatre incredibly freeing, and thrilling, when done right - and it can be done right with unbelievably simple means.

The resulting effects, however, are anything but simple; they can include so much more than cinema can achieve. An electrifying scene in War Horse, for example, is the one in which the young lad Albert finally teaches the growing Joey to accept a rider; the sequence wraps with a wild gallop on horseback - something that you'd think is "beyond" the capability of the theatre to evoke. Yet in War Horse, the audience experienced not only the thrill of forward motion - a staple of the cinema, from The Great Train Robbery to Avatar - but also so much more: we felt the rush of the wind, and the surge of the horse's body, even the pounding of our own lungs. And that's because we weren't dreaming - we were living.


  1. In this, I am reminded of a very powerful piece of theatre I "saw" in Dundee Rep over 25 years ago - a performacne of Moby Dick which morphed ever so gently from initial casting to the final production. I can still feel the personal involvement in a way that I have never experienced in cinema.

  2. Not only am I happy that you are allowing comments again, but I so enjoyed your description of how theatre is the "content" of film (I've read some MacLuhan, but I don't recall coming upon a similar analysis in his work.)

  3. Thanks, Doug and Ian, for your thoughts. The comments section will stay open as long as everyone plays nice.