Sunday, May 4, 2014

"War Horse" at Popejoy Hall, May 3, 2014

They're just puppets, you know
Though spectacularly theatrical, indeed magically so, there's a simplicity and honesty -- as well as a sense of fantasy -- about "War Horse" that makes it as compelling as a children's fable. Naturally so for the work is based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's novel of the same name, adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford and South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company. It was developed and first produced for the stage by the National Theatre of Great Britain, and it soars, lingers and penetrates the soul,  rather like theater once did routinely and always has the power to do.

The war horse in question is named Joey, but there are others which appear in the course of the play, including the magnificent black named Topthorn who becomes Joey's equine companion during the seemingly random and appalling battles the horses and men sent to be sacrificed in World War I find themselves in.

Millions of horses went to their deaths -- for nothing, really -- on the battlefields of the first world war, just as millions of men and women and children were sacrificed in the bloody awful carnage that wracked Europe a century ago (and which may return with a vengeance any minute now, thanks to the madness of the new aristocracy that has arisen there and elsewhere around the globe.)

Joey is one of the horses who was sent "over there." He was a hunter colt, half draft and half Thoroughbred, purchased by a drunken and cruel Devonshire farmer for 39 guineas, raised and loved by his son, Albert, and sold to the Army for 100 pounds. Joey is sent to the front to be the mount of Lieutenant/Captain James Nicholls, a Devonshire man who had also bid on Joey when he was first put up for sale as a colt. Nicholls promises Albert he will always care for and look after Joey, but instead, Nicholls is killed in his first charge into the German lines, and Joey eventually winds up captured by the Germans.

Albert is so distraught when he learns that Captain Nicholls has been killed that he joins up -- though he is only 16. His whole point of joining the Army is to find Joey, which eventually he does near the end of the War, though both horse and boy/man are scarred and weary, and Joey is near death.

The plot is basic enough, and the story is told in a relatively simple and straightforward manner in dialog and song and compelling visuals, including the puppet-horses and the elegant, sometimes horrifying, pencil drawings by designer Rae Smith -- projected and animated on a screen above the stage, a screen which resembles a piece of paper torn from the sketchbook Nicholls bequeaths to Albert after his death.

The puppet-horses, the main ones operated by three puppeteers each, puppeteers who make no pretense of hiding or being "not there" but who are actually a part of the characters of the horses they animate, are astonishing, magnificent, breathtaking, and they are very often able to evoke the deepest emotions of the audience. Tears were flowing throughout.

Some of those who saw the play with us were cynical about the "emotional manipulation" of the piece and especially the way the horses were constantly used to tug at one's heart-strings. But that, to me, was the point of it. Yes, the playmakers knew how to manipulate one's emotions, and they did so expertly through puppets that seemed veritably alive, something I had never witnessed before (puppets have always been something of a turn-off to me). But then, I'd never seen such lifelike-lifesize horse puppets before, either. This was something truly new and spectacular in my long experience in the theater, and truth to tell, I ate it up and reveled in it, indeed, I think it fair to say I "wallowed."

During the first act, I was sitting behind a very large man whose enormous head blocked between a third and a half of the stage from my view, and I was very annoyed at this. I tried to peer around his great noggin, but because of the way the play was staged, I often could not see more than a tiny bit of the action or nor from time to time could I see the actors at all as they spoke or sang. There were people sitting behind me complaining that was blocking their view, too. This was obviously due to a flaw in the design of the Popejoy, as the rake of the house closer to the stage (we were in the 4th, 5th and 6th rows) is insufficient to allow a clear view if there is someone sitting tall in front of you. To fix the situation, I moved to an empty seat in the row in front of my ticketed seat for the second act. Success! Everyone could see!

And it was a wonderful wallow from that point on.

I wouldn't say "War Horse" is an anti-war play in that it isn't a polemic. It's a story. A children's story at root. But the awful things that happen, in the worthless, tragic and almost unbelievable carnage of World War I, and the truth of the monstrous stupidity and cruelty of the powers that be who made that war is not overlooked by the playmakers. It is central to the story itself.

Thus, it's impossible to see "War Horse" and come away with an appreciation for war or those who lead their fellow-men (and horses) into such bloodletting and destruction.

On the other hand, "War Horse" does not wave a "Peace Now!" banner. It simply says, "This is what happened to one young man and one horse during a terrible time in human history..." The theme, of course, is the love between Joey and Albert -- a love that "conquers all" as it done in story and in drama since time immemorial.

Because this was a touring show, and they've been on tour for quite a while, the cast, though not the least bit tired or bored seeming, were more workmanlike than might have been the case in earlier productions. The puppeteers were extraordinary throughout, though, including those who operated Goose (as comic relief), the buzzards which fed on the carnage, the other horses besides the main characters, and the black birds which fluttered across the projections in a couple of scenes.

Though the actors were mic-ed and their voices amplified, the vocal levels were correct, and amplification was not even noticeable after the first few minutes. The overall sound, music and lighting designs were sometimes over the top, something unobjectionable given the context and the play itself, but I was puzzled by the fact that the lighting and stage design made every scene appear to take place at night. Every scene. I don't know that that was the intent, but there may have been no way to avoid it given the way the play was staged.

The cast used simple props to represent paddocks and such which I found perfectly appropriate. The costumes were simple, period-correct, and for the most part realistic, in contrast to the theatricality and absence of literal realism in the rest of the production.

Because we saw this production at a time when grave and very dangerous warrior rhetoric is gathering in Ukraine and the east of Europe once again, and the potential for stumbling and falling into yet another stupid, bloody, destructive European war is greater than it has been for more than a decade, the resonance of "War Horse" was amplified significantly -- though I doubt the Powers That Be are capable of recognizing any such thing.

They weren't capable then, either.

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