Thursday, October 18, 2012

One of the great productions of our time

War Horse showreel from Toby Olie on Vimeo.
Footage from Toby Olie's rehearsals and performances in War Horse, starting as the hind puppeteer of Joey in the National Theatre's original production, alongside Craig Leo (head) and Tommy Luther (heart), and then as head puppeteer of Joey in the consequent West End transfer, alongside Robin Guiver (heart) and Ben Thompson (hind).

Every few years an unforgettable production comes along.  War Horse is one such show.  I've already written about the London version - but I also managed to catch the American leg of its international tour, which holds the stage at the Opera House through Sunday.

And I felt in the end it was an honorable reproduction of the original, even if it was somewhat cramped on the Opera House proscenium.  In London, a wider apron allowed the horses (Joey and and his doomed buddy Topthorn) to canter and trot at will - sometimes in wide circles - which was impossible here (the limitations of the stage also meant the tank which Joey confronts in the second act had to roll on, and then turn around and roll off).  There was also some slight gap in the verisimilitude of the horses' galloping - my guess is that this is calibrated precisely to the blocking, and so in each new house, it must be re-calibrated, and re-learnt.  Still, the miracle of the production's "living" puppetry (see video above) - which depends on the coordination by three separate puppeteers (who all quickly "disappear" to our theatrical perception) of every feature of their horses' anatomies - had in essence survived its Atlantic crossing.

There were other small changes.  In London, the eponymous horse's owner, Albert, was believably a teen-ager - here he was the hunky and capable Andrew Veenstra, who was obviously a full-grown man (and Joey therefore looked somewhat bulked up from his London version, too, to carry the added weight).  And the second act felt slightly streamlined - which was probably a good thing, actually, as the production begins to pound home its anti-war message a bit repetitively.

I have been amused to see that several of the lesser critics have sniffed at the show, however, and made points that are obvious, yet, I suppose count as sophisticated for them.  War Horse is, yes, based on a children's novel - and its innocent story is yoked, perhaps awkwardly, to an intensely rendered pacifist message (it follows the horrific sufferings of the horses who did service in World War I). I can't deny that there's an issue there, at that hinge - poor Joey and Topthorn's travails may be too much for the youngest theatregoers.  (Joey's screams once he is trapped in the barbed wire of No Man's Land are at lot for anyone to handle.)  Nor does Nick Stafford's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's original novel quite make the ironies of Joey's adventures on (and across) the German lines "come alive" as they might.

But let's be honest - the text is for the most part quite sturdy - how can people who take Les Miz or Rent seriously sniff at this?  And the production's evocations of trench warfare are often stunningly imaginative - in fact I've never seen war conjured as powerfully on stage as it is here; and if we feel almost fatigued by the Great War's horrors by the finish - well, that comes with the territory, doesn't it (and surely the lines that reference the British disasters in Afghanistan sound an important echo today!).

All this is as nothing, however, before the magic of the production's horses, and the way in which the craft of Handspring Puppet Company has brought to the stage something that has never been seen there before - fully-developed animal "characters," rendered with a poignant force that is all but guaranteed to reconnect you to a beloved pet, or your childhood, or perhaps just the simple pleasures of being alive, and how vulnerable such joys are, and will forever be.  I know it sounds corny to say it - and of course the show isn't cheap (although I believe half-price tickets are available at ArtsBoston) - but if you see one show this season, it should be War Horse.  Trust me, you will never forget it.


  1. I truly wish I'd seen that London production; from your description, the Lincoln Ctr version I saw last year was apparently a pale imitation. Either that or the themes and ironies didn't translate to the back row.

  2. I think the video speaks for itself, although the Opera House is a big place, and anything can have trouble reaching the back row, I suppose. For the record, I found half-price tickets in the rear of the orchestra at ArtsBoston, I'd suggest that to anyone over full price at the back of the balcony.