I went into “War Horse” knowing only that it had won five 2011 Tony Awards, including “best play” — and that it featured lifesize horse puppets so spectacular that their creators, the Handspring Puppet Company of Cape Town, South Africa, received a special Tony Award for their work.
I knew it was a majestic tale of horses taken into war, but I knew nothing more. Turns out it’s also the story of a family’s dire financial woes, a father’s battle with alcohol and pride, a mother’s tough but tender heart and a young boy’s struggle to right the wrongs of everyone around him.
The opening scene of “War Horse” is breathtaking — as is much of the action that follows. Throughout the play, a young woman sings with haunting beauty, often accompanied by lone fiddle and accordian players.
What looks like a torn piece of ivory linen paper with charred edges hangs where there should be a sky. Sepia-tone images and words are sometimes projected onto it, often revealing the date and country as the story moves from Great Britain to battles beyond.
Long, flexible poles are swung in a circular motion over audience members seated near the stage. Bird puppets are suspended from them. Soon a plump goose puppet at the end of a long rod is pushed around the stage by a puppeteer donning a knit cap with a ball on top. Scavenger birds appear in later scenes as war casualties mount.
Our first glimpse of a horse puppet comes when a young version of “Joey” — and his three puppeteers — take the stage. The foal is being auctioned off, and a poor farmer beats the town bigwig with an outrageous bid. They get the foal, but risk losing their home. The mother puts her teenage son in charge of the horse, hoping the animal will earn its keep pulling the family plough.
Soon the horse is grown, and a larger puppet becomes “Joey.” It’s clear that the horse is a hunter with finely tuned instincts and strength to match his beauty. Still, the father bets the bigwig he can teach the horse to plough the fields, and wins from him the price of the horse when his son makes it happen. He’s promised his son that if the horse wins the bet, “Joey” is his to keep forever.
When World War I brings the call for soldiers and the horses they’ll need to ride into battle, the father can’t resist an offer to sell his son’s beloved “Joey” for a large sum of sorely needed cash. He breaks his promise to his son, who is still too young to enlist and accompany his horse into war.
The rest of the play recounts the young man’s attempts to find and save his “Joey,” raising questions along the way about whether man or animal is really the “beast” — and showing with remarkable realism the impact that new technologies like machine guns had on more traditional means of combat.
“War Horse” is a sensitive look at the horrors of war. It considers the ways we betray or stay loyal to ourselves and to others, leaving room for love and hope (and the light-hearted comedy of a noisy goose) to shine through.
Walking with my daughter Lizabeth after the show, I wondered how any other work of theater could ever hold such power and grace. Works like “War Horse” are precious and rare.
If you can’t see the play, you can still embrace the story by reading the Michael Morpurgo novel that inspired it. He’s written more than 100 children’s books, including several dealing with animals and war.
And you can see Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” film when it’s released later this year. In the meantime, read the “Lincoln Center Theater Review” online to enjoy a collection of articles related to the play.
You’ll discover a bit about the people who brought the play, which debuted several years ago in London, to life — including a man who turned to horses when his own father became abusive.
You’ll find fascinating horse lore, learn about the evolution of warfare and read about the reaction of a modern-day soldier to finding a furry little puppy in the field.
“War Horse” is an unforgettable tale of love and loss. I’m so grateful to have witnessed it.
Note: “War Horse” is a production of the National Theatre of Great Britain. It was adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford. It opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on April 15, 2011.
Coming up: Images from the 9/11 Memorial Preview Center in NYC
Update: Click here to read a beautiful essay composed by writer Michael Morpurgo as a reflection on the recent tragedy in Norway.